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Waubonsee’s fast-track associate degree program reaches halfway point

SUGAR GROVE – For the past several months, Viridiana Diaz has been in survival mode.

The 22-year-old Aurora native is one of 20 students who began a fast-paced associate degree program in August at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, with the intent of graduating with a fully-transferable degree – with a business emphasis – in just one year.

The students entered the inaugural Dunham Fund Quick Path program understanding their course load would be heavy – typically, the 60-credit-hour degree takes two years to complete, not one – and expectations high.

Though they’re exhausted, they’ve certainly met – if not exceeded – those expectations thus far, said Sean Warren-Crouch, project manager for the Dunham Fund Quick Path program.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” he said. “A lot of them go from school to the library to home for more work and then to bed. [But] they’re halfway done. They can’t believe it.”

Nineteen students are on track to graduate (one left the program for personal reasons), and 17 have a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher, which is much better than average, said Warren-Crouch. One student even has a 4.0.

What’s more, 16 students plan to transfer to a four-year institution this fall, and a handful already have been accepted to schools like Northern Illinois University, Benedictine University, Aurora University and the University of Iowa, Warren-Crouch said.

Ten students were accepted to Phi Theta Kappa, the international community college honors society, which will help students secure scholarships when transferring to those other institutions, Warren-Crouch said.

Sometimes it’s good to look at those positives, because the day-to-day grind can get intimidating, said Diaz.

“It’s a draining and tiring program, but what you have to remember is that it’s worth it at the end,” Diaz said. “And I think that’s what most of us remember.”

Speeding along

The best part of the Dunham Fund Quick Path program has been the opportunity to cram two years of schooling into one, said Martin Morales, 19, of North Aurora.

“The one-year track is the best thing,” he said. “Saving a whole year of tuition, books, time – I honestly would have done this program even without the extra perks, just to get done in a year.”

The “extra” perks have included full tuition, books, a computer, an allowance, daily lunches and coaching by Warren-Crouch, all funded by a $500,000 grant from the Aurora-based Dunham Fund, which funds educational and community development programs and projects that better the Aurora area. 

Morales – a first-generation college student – had planned to attend college even before hearing of the program, but the assistance he’s receiving is a huge benefit, he said.

He just signed up for fall orientation at NIU, where he’s been accepted into the university’s accounting program. With an associate degree from Waubonsee in hand, he plans to finish his Bachelor of Science degree in accounting in two years and then enroll in the university’s one-year master’s program in either taxation or leadership in accountancy – yet another accelerated program that will help him graduate earlier than many students.

If all goes to plan, he will have earned a master’s degree after just four years of higher education.

“I think my family and I, we’ve put myself in a good position,” he said.

His end goal is to gain experience in the field and then come back home to take over the construction business owned by his father, Pedro Ramirez.

“I tell everyone that the stars just aligned for me,” he said of joining the program.

Apply for next year

Waubonsee will continue the accelerated format of the Dunham Fund Quick Path program for the 2017-18 school year, Warren-Crouch said, with some minor adjustments to the academic format so that course loads aren’t quite so heavy in certain terms.

Plans are to again cap the program at 20 students. Applications should be available mid-March with a deadline of June 1.

Morales and Diaz are testaments of how the program can work for different individuals with different goals.

Morales graduated from West Aurora High School last year and entered the Dunham Fund Quick Path program with several dual credits that lightened his workload a bit, giving him time to get involved on campus.

He joined Student Senate and recently was elected secretary; he became an active member of the Business Club; and he was accepted into the college’s first Waubonsee Leadership Development Program.

“He’s really involved on campus, in addition to all the work he’s completing,” Warren-Crouch said. “He’s definitely taking the reins, and he’s killing it this year … . I know that being involved is important to student success, but I did not expect the level of involvement that Martin has done.”

Diaz, meanwhile, graduated from East Aurora High School and joined the work force for three years, quickly moving her way up to a supervisory position within the hospitality industry. Still, she dreamed of going back to college, and the Dunham Fund Quick Path program was her ticket to earn her degree.

Though it was suggested students in the program focus their energies on their studies and not try to balance a work-school schedule – hence the allowance, or stipend given to each student – Diaz continued to work, first on a full-time basis, and now three to four days a week.

She does not suggest other students follow her path, noting her schedule has been chaotic at times.

“It’s been rough,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you it’s been pretty and green with flowers.”

What has pulled her through has been the support of the teaching staff and the guidance of Warren-Crouch.

And understanding that in a matter of months, she will walk away with an associate degree keeps her energized, she said.

She’s been accepted to the accelerated transfer program at her dream school – DePaul University – and now plans to major in business administration, with minors in international business and political science.

“It’s a good feeling; it’s a feeling of accomplishment and relief,” Diaz said of reaching the halfway point. “And I’m almost there. I remind myself every day.”

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