CREO Guides Latino Students on the Path to College

Ministry launched at St. Mark's prepares first-generation students, parents for the challenges ahead

There are more than 10,000 Hispanic or Latino high school students in DuPage County, and most of them would be the first members of their family to earn a college degree. CREO DuPage, a college preparation program that began as a ministry of St. Mark’s, Glen Ellyn, was established to give them a fighting chance.

“The important things for the kids to understand are ‘Where am I? What do I want to do? What are my opportunities? And how can I take advantage of those?’” says David C. Arch of Grace, Hinsdale, who played a key role in organizing the program in the summer of 2019.

Arch, chairman of the board of Blistex Inc., has long been involved in youth education programs in Chicagoland. He and his wife, Suzanne, who had served on the board of Episcopal Charities, were impressed by the success of Waukegan to College, a pioneering college preparation program that works primarily with Latino students. W2C, as it is sometimes called, was developed with the help of a grant from Episcopal Charities, and has been sustained with the energetic support of Christ Church, Waukegan, and help from Christ Church, Winnetka, and Holy Spirit, Lake Forest.

St. Mark’s, a congregation that celebrates the Eucharist in English and Spanish and offers numerous bilingual activities, seemed like a natural home for a similar program, and after conversations with the Rev. George Smith, the parish’s rector, and the Rev. Robert O. Wyatt, a priest associate, Arch agreed to help launch CREO. He learned quickly that Hispanic students in DuPage and surrounding counties faced challenges that went beyond the purely academic.

“The Hispanic community was not fully informed of the opportunities that existed for them,” he says. For most families, two questions stood out. Was obtaining a college degree financially feasible in the short run, and was a degree financially beneficial in the long run?

CREO helps answer these questions and prepare immigrant and first-generation students for the challenges of college life with a program that involves both students and parents, says James Johnson, CREO’s executive director. Students commit to one hour of weekly academic coaching with a volunteer coach and twice-monthly workshops devoted to social and emotional development. Parents, meanwhile, participate monthly in Caminando Juntos (Walking Together) workshops, which helps prepare them for some of the cultural challenges they may experience when their children enroll in college.

“A lot of colleges have the perspective that it’s really hard to find the students that will be capable of performing in their rigorous environment,” Johnson says.

Students sometimes find themselves in situations in which “their professors have one set of expectations for them and their families have a different set of expectations and there is very little understanding between them,” he adds. “The parents’ expectations are very family-centered. … Students feel divided in their loyalties between those two sets of expectations.”

Many CREO students have never visited a college campus before, Johnson says, and the program seeks to remedy this by arranging visits to local universities. Simply bringing young people and their parents into the college environment and introducing them to bilingual administrators and faculty members who are creating support programs for first-generation college students can help make the prospect of college less intimidating, he says.

Ana Romero, whose daughter Joanna graduated from the program, says guidance and encouragement from CREO’s coaches and mentors helped her daughter to continue her schooling and to think more expansively about her future.

“As of right now she is completing a course to become a certified nurse assistant,” Romero says. “She is doing volunteer hours at nursing home. And this was all thanks to the help and support CREO has created for our family.”

St. Mark’s has nurtured CREO with volunteers and money and by providing space for programs. Smith and Wyatt remain active in the program, and CREO students who participate in the church’s youth ministry help spread the word about the program at gatherings such as the parish’s Youth Night. While many CREO volunteers are members of the parish, other volunteers drive long distances to participate.

“We are trying to find this good place where its roots are at St. Mark’s but it’s not only a St. Mark’s thing,” Smith says. “It’s CREO DuPage, and that attracts it to more people.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented particular challenges to the young program, but not long after the outbreak began, CREO hired an unusually experienced leader as its first executive director. A recruiter reached out to Johnson, who lives in Glen Ellyn and had “20 years of experience doing all of the things they said were looking for,” in April 2020.

“I was flabbergasted something so tailored to my sense of calling and passion was so close to home,” Johnson says. He was hired within a week.

“They had done a tremendous amount of work laying foundation but predicated on in-person,” he says. “All of that blew up, everything kind of melted, disintegrated.”

Johnson and his staff, including Dulce Torres, the program director at the time, and Katerine Torres, program administrator, spent the next few months “pandemic-proofing the program” in ways that could “maximize the impact of volunteers and still try to accomplish some of our goals for community building,” he says. The staff now includes Cynthia Diaz, program coordinator.

Like many organizations around the church, CREO came to rely on Zoom for its community building meetings, while using a password-protected section of its website to share materials. Campus visits during a pandemic were difficult to arrange, but it is a big priority for Johnson this year. In the fall of 2021, CREO did manage to arrange campus visits to Elmhurst University in Elmhurst, Benedictine University in Lisle, North Central College in Naperville, and interviews for new students at Wheaton College in Wheaton.

If the growth of the program is any indication, CREO is still on the rise. “We had 22 to 24 students last year,” Johnson says. “This year we started with 27 and are working on growing up to 38 by next September.  We have to keep growing our volunteer corps as we seek new families to join our program.”

CREO is continually looking for volunteers to serve as academic coaches, mentors in the college search process, and leaders of Saturday morning workshops that help students explore their interests, goals, and values. Learn more:

image: CREO students gathered for a holiday party