A dorm near home for immigrant students

29 Mar 2012 - Geraldine Baum

Pilsen, just west of downtown Chicago, is like a lot of immigrant neighborhoods across the nation.

The children don’t always finish high school and if somehow they make it to college they have to fight for quiet space to study at home. Living on a college campus or even just working late at the library aren't options both because protective parents don't want their children far from home and returning after dark to the neighborhood can be dangerous.

So a bathroom becomes a refuge for cramming for exams after midnight, and the bridge between home and campus feels that much more difficult to navigate.

But what makes Pilsen unique is that the people of this Mexican-American community decided to do something for their children. They decided to build them a college dorm right in the neighborhood.

Eleven years in the making, a dream is about to come true. A new six-story dorm in the heart of Pilsen called La Casa is set to open this fall with amenities that parents couldn’t possibly provide in overcrowded apartments and that commuter colleges rarely offer on campus.

La Casa will have beds for 105 students, ample-size rooms, kitchens, dining and living rooms as well as a resident assistant on every floor to help at all hours of the night. La Casa will also offer residents a range of services including internships, workshops, mentors, and tutors in an adjoining college resource center, all tailored for students who aren’t often prepared for the academic and social challenges of college.

"Its a home away from home, but not too far," said Julio Guerrero of The Resurrection Project, the community group that created La Casa.

The dorm cost $11.6 million to build and was financed mostly with an Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity capital grant but also with bank loans and foundation and private contributions.

From inception, the people of Pilsen latched on to education and housing as needs in their community. The Resurrection Project built its reputation over the last 22 years developing affordable housing in vacant lots and setting up Mexican-American immigrants as homeowners. But launching the children of Pilsen to college has been more difficult. Less than 15 percent of Pilsen residents have been able to earn a bachelor's degree.

LISC/Chicago was working with The Resurrection Project to develop a comprehensive community plan when the idea of building a dorm in the neighborhood came up. Before approaching banks and the state for capital money to build it, the community went to LISC, which provided a grant to help The Resurrection Project develop a capital campaign plan. Having LISC's name on those early plans improved the odds that the dorm would be built by sending a message to commercial bankers and the state that this innovative and, frankly, unproven idea was a safe investment.

Susana Vasquez, LISC/Chicago's executive director, was working at The Resurrection Project at the time. She recalls that one of the leaders who came up with the idea for the La Casa project had died in a fire saving others, but that others in the community took up the cause.

"Creating an environment that not only houses but helps the young people succeed has been important to Pilsen," she said. "It's great that this is about to happen."

The model could be exported to immigrant communities in other LISC local offices, but it has to be driven by a close-knit neighborhood. "Because everything else up to that point had not made an impact on helping kids get to college, the dorm was a viable idea that they wouldn't give up on," Vasquez said.

Pilsen's geography also has been critical—the neighborhood is surrounded by highways, a river and railroad tracks, but is also a relatively short ride by public transportation to more than a dozen community colleges and universities, many of them public schools where Latino students enroll.

Frank Sanchez, a student housing guru who is serving as vice chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY), said while he has never heard of a dorm installed in a neighborhood, the model has the potential to be effective as long as students are encouraged to remain involved in campus life.

"Many of our students are leaders in their families and communities and that can distract," said Sanchez of CUNY, the largest urban university system in the country. "If they cannot separate themselves from those experiences, they will have a difficult time in higher education."

But Sanchez said the neighborhood dorm had potential if the nearby universities support the students in their social and academic integration. "I'd love to see this be successful," he added. "It just has to be thoughtful programmatically." He even offered a suggestion: What if the students, throughout the year, spend an evening or so every month living in an on-campus facility? "The dorm could be a good transition," he said.

Guerrero of The Resurrection Project noted that the dorm was also a way of addressing the apprehensions of immigrant parents, many of them undocumented, who felt the need to keep their children within range--and safe.

Article Type: LISC Article