Two first-generation college students, Jazmin Martinez, 21, of Joliet and Jessica Lopez, 40, of Romeoville, shared their stories when Gov. JB Pritzker visited Joliet Junior College on Thursday.
Pritzker’s stop at JJC was part of his tour highlighting his proposed investments in higher education, which could potentially help JJC students like Martinez and Lopez build better and brighter lives for themselves.
These investments include a $19.4 million increase in community college funding, the largest increase in more than two decades, Pritzker said.
It also includes an $8.3 million for dual credit and noncredit workforce grant programs, $750,000 to expand English language services and $11 million for development of advanced manufacturing, EV technology and data center workforce training programs.
This will help keep talent in Illinois and keep “local economic engines running at their best,” he said.
“When I first took office, people were leaving Illinois to get a college education because they just could not afford to get it here,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker is also proposing a $100 million increase to the Monetary Award Program grant program. When that’s combined with federal PELL grants, working class residents of Illinois will be able to get a degree from any community college in Illinois “tuition-free and debt-free,” Pritzker said.
This will help open doors for better jobs and new careers in health care, agriculture, manufacturing and “other 21st-century career paths” and attract companies to Illinois where their future employees are already educated for the jobs, Pritzker said.
Benefits of ‘equitable, affordable and accessible’ education
JJC President Clyne Namuo said the college distributes $3.8 million dollars in MAP grant funds to 2,565 students annually and said JJC is “deeply embedded in the community.”
For instance, JJC launched its 12x12x12 dual-credit initiative for its 26 district high schools to help “increase dramatically” college attendance rates, Namuo said. Students in JJC’s 26 partner high schools have the opportunity to earn 12 college credits at $12 per credit hour by the time they reach 12th grade.
He’s excited about the difference in students’ lives Pritzker’s proposals can make.
“Governor Pritzker acknowledges that community colleges play a critical role in shaping the modern economy and building strong communities,” Namuo said.
Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk underscored that by saying thousands of students each year are “impacted and uplifted” by JJC.
Nate Baguio, senior vice president of commercial development for Lion Electric, said 40% of all energy jobs in the U.S. will be in the clean energy industry. As an example of the community impact this investments can make, people graduating from JJC’s automotive program potentially build the buses their children will ride to school, he said.
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said the proposed investments will remove barriers to education, especially to students whose parents and grandparents couldn’t afford college, by fulfilling dreams and enabling them to provide for their families.
“When we invest in equitable, affordable and accessible education for all, everyone thrives,” Stratton said.
— “When we invest in equitable, affordable and accessible education for all, everyone thrives." Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton
State Sen. Rachel Ventura, D-Joliet, said she and her three siblings graduated from community college, with half attending JJC. And although Ventura’s father earned only $30,000 at the time, only some qualified for MAP and none received PELL, she said.
Similar situations leave students with thousands of student debt they must pay, Ventura said.
Ventura spoke about the high need for mental health care providers. By making education affordable and accessible, that need can be filled, and Illinois “will be a leader in the jobs of tomorrow,” she said.
What does investing in students look like?
Martinez, a full-time student from a low-income family, started at JJC in fall 2021, has consistently received MAP grant support and is considering studying public service or computer science. She is an honors student, JJC student government president and a member of Phi Theta Kappa.
Martinez praised her JJC experiences.
“They have made me a better person, a better leader and prepared me for the life I have ahead of me,” Martinez said.
Lopez, who also a first-generation high school graduate, relocated to Illinois from Indiana to escape domestic violence. She is a full-time student studying nursing, her dream career she once considered out of reach, while caring for her disabled daughter.
She said she feels the MAP grant absolutely saved her. Neither of her parents made it past middle school. Her father died when she was 3. Her mother suffered from drug addiction. Lopez said she’s lived on her own since age 14 and made some poor choices along the way.
Lopez said she is now a role model for her children and it’s all because of JJC.
“Thank you,” she said tearfully.
Pritzker said he’s been “laser-focused on righting the Illinois fiscal ship” stressed the benefit to Illinois students.
“This year was the first time every single student who applied for a MAP grant got one,” Pritzker said and adding shortly afterward, “That includes 1 in 5 students at JJC.”
Gov. JB Pritzker’s proposed investments at a glance
• $19.4 million increase in community college funding
• $8.3 million for dual credit and non-credit workforce grant programs
• $750,000 to expand English language services
• $11 million for development of advanced manufacturing, electric vehicle technology and data center workforce training programs
• $100 million increase to the Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant program.