April 11, 2007

SIUC brings master's program to bilingual, bicultural rehabilitation center in Chicago

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. —Estela Cervantes of Chicago has a husband, a 4-year-old, golden-ager in-laws, a home that demands the usual amount of homeowner care and a full-time job as a counselor at El Valor, a bilingual, bicultural rehabilitation center in Chicago. Why not, she thought, add Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate student to that list?

"At first I worried, 'What am I going to do about a babysitter, how will it affect my home life?', but I am the kind of person who has backup after backup, so I told my family, 'No, it's going to be fine — nothing will change,'" Cervantes said in a telephone interview after completing her first class sessions.

"They're very supportive. They said, 'We'll take care of things — we'll have it covered.'

"It's a great school and a great opportunity — I had to take it."

Cervantes has enrolled in the SIUC Rehabilitation Institute's master's program in rehabilitation counseling, a program ranked sixth in the nation this month in U.S. News & World Report's annual guide to the country's best graduate schools.

But the El Valor students don't have to drive five hours each way to get to class. Using traveling faculty, a compressed curriculum and the Internet, the Institute is bringing the classroom to them.

"It's a combination of face-to-face instruction and distance learning with the same academic credit and rigor it would have if we were doing this right here in Carbondale," said interim Institute Director John J. Benshoff.

Vincent A. Allocco, president of El Valor, said he began pursuing the opportunity for graduate education for his organization's employees because of a shortage of Latinos in leadership positions in the rehabilitation and disability field.

"We have a lot of experience here, a knowledgeable group, but they're not credentialed," he said.

"The degree will provide them with the education and credentials they need to advance in the field. And it's not just for Latinos. We have a lot of ethnic groups represented in the class, and there are also students with disabilities in this group — it's really inclusive."

SIU President Glenn Poshard noted that the program exemplifies the University's commitment to diversity.

"Our outreach into the Hispanic community is just the beginning of further efforts that we will make to reach the diverse populations of Illinois," he said.

The Rehabilitation Institute offered a similar master's program 10 years ago in Springfield, but with some significant differences.

"That group tended to be younger, tended to have fewer family ties than this group, and it was pre-Internet," Benshoff said.

"Many of this group have second jobs on the weekend and extended families. They wanted to have at least one day off each week to take care of Grandma or to take the kids to the park.

"So we're going to be exploring to determine the best possible way to deliver this valuable educational service to the group in a way they can deal with. We're not casting anything in stone right now."

Benshoff has already made some initial adjustments to the schedule, reducing the weekend component and expanding the online hours.

"That allows us to get the full complement of 45 hours we need to have to offer a three-credit course," he said.

R. Lee Chism, coordinator of El Valor's acquired brain injury program, said Thomas D. Upton, who is teaching the group's introductory class, has been upfront about the fact that the Institute's faculty is feeling its way.

"He let us know there are still some kinks to work out since this is a new deal, but I think everyone is enjoying it, and I think it will be pretty interesting," said Chism, who earned his bachelor's in psychology from SIUC in 1990.

Both Chism and Cervantes noted the lively discussions that take place in the class.

"It's not just the professor talking and us taking notes — it's open for us to talk," Cervantes said.

"The group we have has so many talents and skills that I am learning from my classmates."

Benshoff said such give and take figured prominently in programs where students had full-time jobs.

"They're already working, so when you toss out an idea or discuss a concept, they know what you're talking about," he said.

While Benshoff called the master's program "the first significant outreach we have done with the Latino community in Chicago," he hopes it won't be the last. A number of El Valor employees have completed some college coursework but lack bachelor's degrees.

"If SIUC could deliver a bachelor's program, that would give them a few more options, though the travel would be a challenge," he said.

Such a program would receive a whole-hearted endorsement from Cervantes even though she already has her bachelor's degree.

"I think that these are programs that need to be brought to people," she said.

"There's a lot of talent out there, but sometimes it's difficult to go back to school because we're older or have families or it's too far away. For me, this has been convenient, and I don't have to take too much time from my job. It's a great school."