NIU doctoral student and long-time NIU employee Susana Das Neves gives back to her Latino community as the coordinator of Universidad para Padres (Parent University), the focus of her doctoral research. This community outreach program empowers mothers, fathers and grandparents to take active roles in their own personal growth and their children’s academic success.
Parent University is sponsored by the Northern Illinois Regional P-20 Network and managed by the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement, where Das Neves works as a graduate assistant to coordinate the program.
Das Neves began working at NIU in 1996, first as a bilingual counselor for the CHANCE Program, later as assistant director of the Latino Resource Center and then as an adviser in the Academic Advising Center. While Das Neves loved her work with students, she always dreamed of completing her doctoral degree. After working toward her doctorate part time for several years, Das Neves decided to leave her job in 2016 and become a full-time student in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education at NIU.
Das Neves’ experience with Parent University has fueled a new passion for working with adult learners, and she hopes to continue on that path once she completes her Doctor of Education degree in adult and higher education.
“I’ve come full circle,” Das Neves says. “During my career at NIU, I worked indirectly with parents of college students, and now I am working directly with the parents and indirectly with their children.”
Her experience as an immigrant and a college adviser has shaped her unique approach to the Parent University program. While there are many Parent University programs across the country, Das Neves says that most focus on parenting skills during early childhood years or on parental school engagement. However, Das Neves says, “The key component missing from many of these programs is the personal development of the parent as an individual and an adult learner, truly giving credit to the word ‘university.’”
Das Neves embraces a holistic philosophy that addresses the parents’ personal development, their relationship with their children and their relationship with schools.
“My belief is that if we focus on developing the parents’ knowledge on helping them see themselves as agents of change, then they can transfer those skills to serve as ‘parents of change,’” she said. “They feel validated as individuals and they know they have something to contribute to their children’s education.”
During the 2016-2017 school year, the Regional P-20 Network launched Parent University as a pilot program under Das Neves’ coordination, and the program surpassed all expectations.
“It was very rewarding to see how something that started so small developed so well and so quickly,” Das Neves says.
This school year, Parent University has 28 participants enrolled and 32 sessions scheduled on issues as diverse as schools, healthcare and immigration law. Das Neves credits parents for the growth of the program as they have been empowered to take a leadership role. She describes Parent University as “a learning community where we all learn together and from each other through engaged dialogue.” The parents participate in decision-making, organize activities and events for the group and contribute as partners on the leadership team. This past year, several of the parents even presented about their experiences at statewide education conferences, which was a new experience for them.
“The parents have discovered that they have talents they didn’t know they had,” Das Neves says. “These parents are the roots of the family, and they are developing leadership and self-advocacy skills that empower them to support their children in both P-12 schools and the pursuit of post-secondary education.”
Das Neves earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Universidad de Monterrey in Mexico before moving to the U.S. to complete her master’s degree at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She feels that her experience as an immigrant helps her connect to the parents.
“We learn together because I also immigrated to this country, I am involved in the community and I have children in the K-12 education system,” she says.
She credits her mother with helping her pursue higher education. “My mom didn’t go to college, but she was there for me, supporting me when I was going to school at the Universidad de Monterrey,” she said. “The parents in this program learn about the potential they have to support their own and their children’s education, regardless of language, education or immigration status.”
In the words of one Parent University participant, “For me, Parent University has been a motivation to believe that our children can become a better version of ourselves. It has put in our hands knowledge and resources that, if we learn how to take advantage of them, will make us, as immigrants, not only persons with stronger self-confidence but also a stronger community.”
Das Neves’ goal for Parent University is to help it become sustainable for the long term — even after she has completed her doctoral degree. “I would like to see Universidad para Padres continue,” she says, “and I see the potential for sustainability through collaboration and community partnerships.”
These partnerships are already central to Parent University. The Northern Illinois Regional P-20 Network, its sponsor, is a collaborative organization based at NIU that includes 13 community colleges and 30 school districts. Parent University partners include NIU, Kishwaukee College and school districts in DeKalb, Sycamore and Rochelle.