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Fall 2020
Welcoming New Scholars During Unorthodox Times

This academic year, Illinois Promise welcomed its newest class of over 350 scholars in a new and different way!  Instead of gathering our large group at the Illini Union as we have in the past, we held a series of virtual New Scholar Orientation sessions (NSOs).  In small-group Zoom meetings throughout the months of July and August, students had the chance to meet others in their cohort, offer up their worries about being a new undergraduate at Illinois, share what they are most excited about, interact with representatives from the financial aid office, and learn more about the support program. 

Once the new scholars arrived to campus, we also had to think creatively about distributing their Illinois Promise swag. Following campus guidelines and CDC best practices, we invited new scholars to stop by our outside location to get to know the I-Promise staff and I-Promise Council and pick up a “Start Strong Pack” full of goodies and an I-Promise t-shirt. New scholars even had the chance to borrow an iClicker, at no cost to them, through a partnership between the Office of Minority Student Affairs and Illinois Student Government.

It was clear that scholars were excited to start their new chapter at Illinois. Despite having several online classes, they shared that they are motivated to grow and earn good grades. “I am actually very excited. I've been ready to go to college for a while. Now that I am here, the schedule is so much more different than high school. You have classes here, you have classes there, you might not even have [in-person] classes,” said Christopher Romero (Undeclared,2024).

Mentors Matter -- Now More Than Ever!

With social distancing and mask-wearing as the new norm, I-Promise mentoring is taking on a new look and feel, too.  Assistant Director, Shanicka Burdine, has already made many new matches and those new relationships are kicking things off virtually.  Avital Livny and Ben Miller, Assistant Professors from the Department of Political Science, and seasoned Illinois Promise mentors, are shining examples of guidance, support, and the impact the mentoring program has on mentees, especially during these unusual times.

“I think having someone in your corner who isn't your parents or buddies; who will talk to you about how the system works, is just a good thing to have in any kind of new situation," says Ben. ”You really see the value and the help that is provided and it is nice to get to know students and have a relationship where you know you'll get to help them and hopefully, years later, they will tell you how you made an impact.”

While Avital and Ben would normally be hosting their mentees for in-person conversations and activities, like their trip to a local escape room last year (see photo), they’ve adjusted their approaches to align with best practices during the pandemic. “Normally we would go out and grab a bite to eat and, you know, spend some time chatting. Now we usually need to Zoom or [talk] on the phone and chat that way...and it's helpful because we already had a great connection, so we can just sort of build on an existing connection,” notes Avital.

Whether in-person or via electronic communication platforms, Avital and Ben deeply appreciate their relationships with their mentees.  “It’s better than interacting with colleagues. It's better than doing research. It’s better than teaching. It is so rewarding,” adds Ben.

Are you a faculty, staff, graduate student, Illinois Promise alum, or community member, who is interested in becoming an Illinois Promise mentor?  Get more information here

Are you a scholar interested in being matched with a mentor?  Get more information here

Scholar Spotlight: Leadership is Key

Johana Machuca (Spanish and Speech & Hearing Sciences, 2021) hopes to create change and influence others through her various leadership roles at the University of Illinois. With positions in the Leadership Center (ILC), I-Promise Council, and the Illinois Academic Enrichment and Leadership Program (I-LEAP) within the College of Applied Health Sciences, Johana makes the most of her Illinois Promise experience.

Johana recently landed a position as a Graf Intern at the Illinois Leadership Center, where she provides leadership education and workshops (I-Programs) to students all around campus. Prior to this year, she also attended The Institute by Leadershape, a 6-day leadership retreat sponsored by the ILC.  “Just working at the ILC has allowed me to know and learn about myself and work with other individuals who are also involved throughout the campus and care about the future of society. You get to meet so many people from campus that you probably wouldn't have met. They all kind of make a change in the world,” says Johana.

Johana says her involvement in the I-Promise Council, for which she currently serves as President, has helped her gain confidence.  It has also allowed her to meet many scholars, like her, who experience unique challenges as first-generation college students. 

Even though Johana is now a senior, she's not planning to slow down anytime soon.  She is currently applying for graduate school with the goal of becoming a bilingual pathologist for children and opening an early intervention center for those in need.

Alumni Spotlight: From Brit Lit to “The Bureau”

Princess White (English, 2019) is a big dreamer and an even bigger doer.  So when graduation came around last year, she knew she had a lot of options.  Following a rigorous application process that included multiple background investigations and interviews, Princess began her full-time position with the FBI in November of 2019, as an Operational Support Technician.  One more step on the pathway that she continues to build for herself thanks to the tools she’s amassed along the way, including those from Illinois Promise and her undergraduate years at the College of DuPage and the U of I.

After transferring to Illinois, Princess dove into her studies as an English major--exploring various genres, periods, and authors, and continuing to develop critical skills in analysis, research, and communication.  Skills that she deploys every day at work and in her day-to-day life.

Wanting to have impact both inside and outside of the classroom, Princess signed up for the Illinois Promise first-year mentoring program and is still exceptionally close with her mentor, Verna.  Princess also earned a spot for The Institute by Leadershape: a highly-selective, immersive, leadership retreat for undergraduates, held at Allerton Park and Retreat Center.  Later, she became an intern for the Transfer Advantage course offered in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where she won a LAS Intern Award for outstanding service and performance. 

Though Princess can’t talk much about the work she does for the FBI due to the sensitive nature of her role, she knows that big things lie upon the horizon.  Next up:  taking the LSAT and pursuing a J.D. at Howard University, Princess’s dream school.

Princess shared the following advice for Illinois Promise scholars: “Follow your heart.  Know what you’re passionate about because things that you’re passionate about are going to end up as your career…. You’re going to know what’s right for you and what isn’t right for you."

Alumni, we'd like to stay in touch! Please join our LinkedIn group so that we can keep you updated with the latest I-Promise alumni opportunities.

Challenges Bring Us Closer

Although most events and resources have moved online, I-Promise never waivers in support for our scholars.  Since the transition to remote learning in March, unique efforts have included ramping up e-communication, offering flexibility in meeting times, increasing accessibility with a new online appointment scheduling platform, and offering additional programming including a new Re-Orientation requirement for continuing scholars.

Sarah Watson, Director, said she knows it’s hard for students to feel connected right now. “In person or virtually, we want I-Promise to be a community that, in many ways, feels like a family -- a safe space where students can go for unconditional support, for anything from help with challenges they’re facing to celebrating their achievements.  She noted that the launch of Re-Orientations could not have come at a better time.  “During the month of October, we interacted individually or in small groups with the majority of our continuing scholars. This was such a helpful touchpoint and reminder for scholars of the support and resources available to them.”

Kristine McCoskey, Assistant Director, adds that "Our students and our staff are all 'feeling it'.  Pandemic fatigue, Zoom fatigue, lockdown fatigue.  These are very real.  It's important for scholars to know that we're here for them.  Whether that's a conversation about challenges; helping to talk through a big decision; or even just to talk to someone different for a few minutes.  We're here for what it is they need at any moment.  They're incredible students and they're managing so well during these difficult times.  It's truly inspiring."

Shanicka Burdine, Assistant Director, said she hopes students will get an experience that they’ll never forget with I-Promise. “For the population we serve, it is essential to their success to have a supportive nonjudgmental space, which is what I-Promise offers.  Just knowing that supportive and dedicated people are here makes all the difference.  My hope is that they will get memories, tools for their toolbox, a safe space, and a community that they’ll forever be grateful for.  That was my experience as an I-Promise Scholar.” 

In This Together

Amidst a pandemic, I-Promise Scholars are tackling their student obligations head-on; however, not every task is as easy as it seems.

Solange Leon Vasconez (Human Development and Family Studies, 2021) said dealing with online classes has been a new challenge but IP-Picks [student bulletin] that are sent on a bi-weekly basis have helped her stay connected to campus during this pandemic.  Solange adds that I-Promise has been helpful in sending out reminders about upcoming social events and professional development opportunities.

Estela Santillan (Political Science and Latina/Latino Studies, 2023) also agrees that I-Promise offers many support group opportunities and financial help. “My semester is going a lot smoother than last semester, however sometimes coursework can still be very overwhelming. Especially during a pandemic, it's hard to be consistent with assignments all the time,” Estela said.

The Illinois Promise Council (IPC) is responding to students' needs by organizing timely events like the recent Time Management and Study Skills workshop, just for I-Promise Scholars, delivered by The Counseling Center.  They also sponsored a virtual game night and a fun in-person "meet and greet" with therapy dogs during which scholars had the chance to individually interact with some sweet furry faces on the South Quad.

Did you know that we're online?

Did you know that I-Promise is on Facebook and Instagram?  We also have a website! Like, follow, and visit our pages to stay up to date on the latest happenings with our scholars!


The Illinois Promise Newsletter is distributed semiannually.  If you have questions, or if you'd like to be featured in a future issue, please send us an email.