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Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

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First Class Graduates from Illinois Scholars Program

A group of 9 people pose with four graduates seated in chairs in front of the group.
Illinois State Scholars staff past and present came together to celebrate the first group of graduates. Seniors from left to right: Queen Reese, Arelis Campbell, Priscilla Vargas and Casandra Vences.

Queen Reese had a big decision to make. She went over the information again and again but couldn’t decide. She was struggling to choose between a predominately white institution, a PWI, or historically black colleges and universities or HBCU.

“I was worried about going to a school where everyone didn’t look like me and didn’t have the same experiences,” Reese said. “It made me want to go to school with the rest of the kids who look like me.”

In the summer of 2018, 24 students arrived on campus a few weeks before school started for the Illinois Scholars Program, ISP.  Now, a short four years later, the first cohort of students is graduating.

Reese is one of them. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in African American Studies and Sociology. She said that when she decided to come to Illinois, she joined ISP and felt at home.  

“Everybody clicked so fast,” she said. “And it already felt like a family.”

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion hosted the Illinois Scholars Program Senior Celebration Saturday to congratulate Reese and the other graduating seniors.

“The Illinois Scholars Program is a great investment in exceptional students from across the state of Illinois,” said Executive Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity Gioconda Guerra Pérez. “We are so proud of the first group of students for successfully completing their education at Illinois.”

The program allows us to support a diverse group of students and help prepare them to pursue their personal and professional goals and dreams, Dr. Guerra said.

“We are so proud of what they have accomplished at Illinois and what they will continue to do after graduation,” she said.

The ISP graduating seniors include: 

Designed to serve residents of the state of Illinois from historically underserved populations and low-sending counties, the Illinois Scholars Program helps to guide new undergraduate students’ transition to the University of Illinois. The Illinois Scholars Program (ISP) aims to combine opportunity and access, experiential learning, and support to position students for academic success and personal growth throughout their time at Illinois.

“They have worked so hard to get here, and it has been exciting to be part of their journey.,” said Ross Wantland, Director of Curriculum Development and Education with the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. “I cannot wait to see what’s next for each of them.”

Staff past and present were able to celebrate with the graduating seniors.

“Dr. Desiree McMillion – the very first coordinator for ISP – has been a mentor and role model for so many of our students since day one. I was so glad she was able to come join us and say a few words about our graduates,” Wantland said.

The Illinois Scholars Program began in 2018. The Program begins with a four-week intensive summer bridge experience for incoming freshmen, but ISP continues to provide support and community for Illinois Scholars during their undergraduate years. During the summer experience, Illinois Scholars are matched with an ISP Mentor, receive personalized math and writing instruction, and build a strong relationship to peers and campus to support them during their first year and beyond to help them meet the rigorous challenges of university life.

Some of the students shared reflections from their time on campus. One big area of focus was the support they received from the ISP staff throughout their four years. Staff supported the students through academic challenges as well as how to be successful in day-to-day life.

Arelis Campbell, senior in political science, said then ISP Director Dr. Desiree McMillion helped her make the adjustment to college life and its challenges.

“She had my back and I was nervous coming in but we had her she told us she had our back and there is nothing to worry about,” Campbell said. “It made me feel so welcome and involved from the get-go.”

The students said the program allowed them to get out of their comfort zones and try new things.

“Don’t quit on yourself,” she said. “Don’t be scared I promise it is worth it.”

Some experiences the students learned were how to read a syllabus, how to conduct research, and find appropriate sources. They also learned about campus resources like McKinley Health Center and the cultural houses.

“It was interesting to meet other people like me,” Senior in communications Sharon Laby said. “The most meaningful thing is having a community on campus it can be hard to find people to connect with.”

The students faced the added challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic which began halfway through their sophomore year.

“Having to go virtual my sophomore year it was a big change I had just got on campus, so I just got used to going to my classes,” Laby said. “When we made that transition online, I had to learn how to be a college student again.”

Laby said ISP and the people she met helped make the transition easier and contributed to her success.

“I wouldn’t have gotten this far without all of the support and the help having a community definitely makes things easier and comfortable,” she said.  

Overall, college is a learning process, Reese said, and ISP gave her the tools to be successful.  

“They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Reese said.

“The statistics were not in my favor for graduating in four years, but I can do whatever I want if I stay determined,” Reese said. “We made it to the finish line.”

The Illinois Scholars Program is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the Division of General Studies, and the Merit Program for Emerging Scholars. The Illinois Scholars Program is supported by generous donations from graduates of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.