First lady Jill Biden recognizes earned tuition program at Sauk Valley Community College

“What starts in one community college classroom can create a chain event that’s eventually felt by every single American,” Biden said.

DIXON – Sauk Valley Community College received national recognition by first lady Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona for looking to build a path where all have access to higher education.

Biden, a longtime community college advocate and a professor of writing at Northern Virginia Community College, toured the college Monday afternoon in Dixon and spoke about the importance of promise programs such as the Sauk Impact Program, which would allow high-schoolers to earn up to 3 years of tuition and fees in a career or transfer program by volunteering in the community.

The Dixon stop was Biden’s first visit to Illinois since taking residence in the White House.

“What starts in one community college classroom can create a chain event that’s eventually felt by every single American,” Biden said.

Promoting education access is key to helping grow communities and their businesses, she said to a socially-distanced audience of about 30 people wearing masks. She arrived at the college a little later than noon and left just before 2 p.m.

“All Americans deserve the same opportunity to pursue their passions, get a great education and build a career that they love,” Biden said. “I’ve seen the ripple effect of education. Families with good-paying jobs can invest in local schools and shops, and businesses can grow their operations.”

Education is the best economic driver for a community, and community colleges are engines of economic development, Cardona said.

Sauk has made great strides with its commitment to growing the area, and the Sauk Impact Program will serve as an example across the nation, he said.

“They’re making a difference for students and families, they’re addressing teacher shortages and career pathways in education, and they’re strengthening the region’s economy via workforce partnerships and internships,” Cardona said.

Biden was joined by Gov. JB Pritzker and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline during the tour. State and local officials were also in attendance for her speech, which was about 10 minutes.

“Investing in education is investing in the future of our state and our nation – a belief we all hold dear,” Pritzker said.

Bustos said in a mostly rural district, the impact program will go a long way for families being able to send their children to college, when they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

“I will continue to work alongside the first lady, Secretary Cardona and President Joe Biden to put forward bipartisan efforts to support our students,” Bustos said. “Innovative ideas like Sauk Valley Community College’s Impact Program can serve as a model for earned tuition programs that provide students with increased opportunity, while also strengthening the community.”

The impact program will be the most important advance in education for the area since the founding of the college, Sauk President Dave Hellmich said.

The college has raised about $3 million of its $10 million goal for the program, and is looking to create a $20 million endowment.

Lori Cortez, dean of institutional advancement at Sauk, said it was a historic day to showcase the college, and every Sauk Valley resident should be proud of their community.

“It’s something everyone can celebrate, to expand access to education, and programs like this certainly have an impact on growing the whole region,” Dixon Mayor Li Arellano Jr. said.

The program’s students would need to meet five criteria to qualify, consisting of registering for the program by Sept. 1 of their freshman year, graduating on time or early with their class, participating in 25 hours of community service a year totaling 100 hours, graduating from high school or an accredited home-school program within the district, and applying for at least one other local/state/national scholarship as well as complete FAFSA.

The tour included highlighting the college’s nursing and multi-craft programs, putting an emphasis on getting students the skills they need to fill job demand in the area.

Crystal Collinson is a single mother of two children who graduated from Sauk’s welding program and was hired at E.D. Etnyre & Co. in Oregon. She said she was proud to be a welder and thankful for the opportunities at Sauk that connect students with employers.

“This school has been very good to me,” Collinson said.

Following the tour, Biden was introduced by Abril Vasquez-Tapia, a first-generation high-school and college graduate, who intends to return to Sauk in the fall to pursue nursing. In high school, she thought her college degree was out of reach.

“Sauk changed her life, and soon, even more students will be able to take advantage of this incredible community thanks to the launch of your college promise program,” Biden said.

Rachel Rodgers

Rachel Rodgers joined Sauk Valley Media in 2016 covering local government in Dixon and Lee County.