By VIKAAS SHANKER
The (Joliet) Herald-News
JOLIET, Ill. (AP) _ Cristal Munguia loved playing teacher with her younger cousins when she was little.
She kept saying she was going to be an elementary school teacher, despite friends and family telling her otherwise. Munguia became a stellar student at Joliet schools.
“One of my parents’ friends always called me `teacher’ in Spanish, maestra,” she said. “And he still calls me it to this day.”
Now in her freshman year of college, Munguia is on track to become a teacher as a MERIT scholar at the College of Education at the University of St. Francis. The distinction includes a four-year, full-ride scholarship to the university and mentorship by faculty and staff.
MERIT, short for Multicultural Education Recruitment in Teaching, is a relatively new joint grant-funded program with USF, Joliet School District 86 and Joliet Township High School District 204. Its aim is to produce more minority teachers in the two public school districts, to better reflect an increasingly diverse student body.
One Joliet Township high school graduate is selected annually for the program. After the student graduates from USF, he or she works in either of the school districts for five years.
“It’s a teacher-in-training program,” said Tracy Spesia, program coordinator. “We offer them the opportunity to go through the program for four years, filling the gap of tuition and what other scholarships they have, including book fees.”
Spesia said the scholarships are given to Joliet Township High School seniors who are students of color, have excellent grade point averages, good communication and writing skills and a commitment to community service.
The school districts offer program participants field experience. But scholars still have to work at it.
“This doesn’t guarantee employment,” Spesia said. “It’s a commitment the districts are making to look at MERIT scholars. The students could serve somewhere else, but it starts with Joliet.”
Munguia is the second program scholar. Jose Ortiz gained the distinction last year and is now a sophomore.
“The scholarship really helps the stress,” said Ortiz, who wants to combine his love for math, arts and soccer into a teaching career. “I’m really grateful for the program. If it weren’t for the scholarship, I would have been going to a community college or another place and had to worry about tuition. I don’t have to worry about the money part now.”
Munguia, who is the first in her family to go to college, said the elimination of tuition worries meant her parents could also rest easy.
“It took a lot of stress off, not having to worry about payments and stuff,” she said. “It really helped my family because they didn’t have to worry about that.”
A full year into the program, Ortiz said the support he received from the college helped him get through classes related to his major. But the biggest transition was dealing with issues many college students face.
“The biggest thing was, don’t procrastinate,” he said. “In high school, there was homework due tomorrow. But in here, it works more on a schedule and you have to learn good time management.”
Munguia said time management was one of the important skills she has learned in her first month of college.
Spesia hopes the scholarship program continues so that there is a MERIT scholar with each graduating class.
“The programs are small and we’re known for knowing our students,” she said. “We do social events and try to connect to them and check in on them.”
Ortiz came to the United States from Mexico in sixth grade and remembers struggling to communicate with teachers who weren’t fluent in Spanish.
“It was just weird sometimes. And it was a struggle,” he said.
Ortiz spent his first year at college becoming certified to teach math to bilingual students, which he said was an important need.
While Munguia grew up in Joliet, she mostly spoke Spanish when she started school.
“I’ve always wanted to stay close to my family in Joliet,” she said. “And it’s good knowing I’ll be helping out.”
“There’s such a need in the state, nation and district to add teachers of color,” Spesia said. “Especially in Joliet, the term `minority’ isn’t really appropriate when talking about diversity.”
Spesia hopes the scholarship can grow, going to multiple recipients annually in the future. But that depends on grant funding and program donations.
“I’d definitely recommend this scholarship to other (high school) students,” Munguia said. “It really is a great program.”
Information from: The Herald-News, http://www.suburbanchicagonews.com/heraldnews