U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Congressman Bill Foster discuss immigration reform, STEM education at Aurora University

Senator Durbin

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin discusses immigration reform with elected officials, university leaders and AU students.

On Wednesday, April 3, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and Congressman Bill Foster visited the Aurora University campus to meet with elected officials, university leaders, students and community members regarding two issues: immigration reform and STEM education.

AU Students Tell their Stories

Senator Durbin’s visit began with a discussion on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA), a program in which undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children can gain access to educational opportunities. Durbin, a leading advocate in the Senate for immigration reform and the bipartisan DREAM Act bill, will present a new bill in Congress next week that aims to allow a select group of immigrant students with great potential to contribute more fully to the country. On campus, Durbin met with three current AU students and a recent alumna who were able to attain their educational dreams, due in part to DACA.

“My mother was a dreamer,” Durbin said. “She came here when she was two years old from Lithuania and became a naturalized citizen at age 23. Her path here is a part of who I am. But it’s not only my story – it’s an American story.” Durbin then encouraged current AU students to share their own personal experiences of their drive for a better education.

Manny Orendain, a current freshman at AU, shared his story with the senator, Congressman Bill Foster, Aurora Mayor Thomas Weisner and his fellow students. Manny, a Mexico native who received approval on his deferred action status last year, arrived in Harvard, Illinois when he was five years old. Since that time, Manny and his family have placed the utmost importance on his education. “I’ve always been determined to advance my education,” he said, “but college can be very pricey when you are not eligible for financial aid like other students.”

At Aurora University, Manny found that he could continue his education, thanks to merit scholarships and an affordable tuition rate. It certainly wasn’t easy for Manny and his family, though. In his first semester, Manny left from his home in Harvard at 5:00 a.m. each day, took two trains and a bus just to get to campus, and did not arrive back to Harvard until well past 10:00 p.m. It was exhausting, but, for Manny, achieving a college education was a dream that he was willing to work for.

Manny’s story was echoed by sophomore Alejandra Saldana and junior Karla Gomez, both of whom have overcome significant financial obstacles and adversity to their families to earn a high quality education. For both students, community support combined with merit scholarships from AU and DACA assistance, a college degree is within sight.

As Aurora University President Rebecca L. Sherrick listened to the students’ stories, she remarked on their talent, their determination and their hopes for a better future. “At AU, we’ve made a commitment to keeping tuition low for the sake of talented students like these,” she said, “and they pay us back ten-fold, not through tuition dollars, but in the changes that they are making in their communities and in the country.”

Senator Durbin also commended the AU students for their tenacity and willingness to speak out. “Young people used to be afraid to raise their hands at meetings about immigration reform,” he said. “Now, young people have said ‘we’re going to tell our story and make a change.’ When you talk about an immigration bill, it’s one thing. But when you’re talking about people’s lives, that’s another. We need to keep telling our stories.”

STEM Education

Senator Durbin, Congressman Foster, Mayor Weisner and others were then joined by representatives of AU’s proposed John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School to address the growing need for effective STEM education in Illinois and beyond.

The STEM Partnership School on the AU campus will serve approximately 200 students in third through eighth grade and will be staffed through a unique professional development strategy, engaging teachers from the partner districts as faculty while they complete content-based master’s degrees. As teachers complete their degree requirements, their confidence and mastery in the STEM fields increases their ability to deliver this content to students. Then, the teachers will return to their districts to become leaders in mathematics and science curriculum.

Indian Prairie School District 204 Superintendent Kathy Birkett has been a leading advocate of the STEM Partnership School. “The bottom line is that this is going to be great for our kids,” she said, “so when we were approached to collaborate on the project, we accepted right away.”

East Aurora High School Teacher Ruth Ramos, a graduate student in the AU content-based master’s program and collaborator on the STEM curriculum, spoke to the effectiveness of AU’s model for STEM education. She related how her conversations with engineers and business leaders have informed her teaching, how her students are now participating in labs and projects with direct application to STEM careers, and how the STEM model has brought authentic experiences to the classroom.

Congressman Foster noted the importance of infusing STEM education into curricula at a very young age. “The earlier that you intervene,” he said, “the greater the return will be on the investment.”

Senator Durbin echoed Foster’s comments, pointing to the dearth of talent in the United States when it comes to filling highly skilled manufacturing and engineering positions at companies like Caterpillar and other large corporations. At the end of the discussion, Durbin noted that two questions come to mind when he considers STEM education: Why is it increasingly difficult to fill these positions with graduates of American secondary institutions and why are we not attracting talented women to STEM careers? “Hopefully, the John C. Dunham Partnership School will help to answer these questions,” he said.

Learn more about the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School at STEM.aurora.edu.