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Aaron Cortes

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Math, science, robots and determination

For nearly five years, Aaron Cortes served as a part-time tutor in Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for College Access and Success while completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Quickly establishing himself as a tireless worker, Cortes was promoted to coordinator of TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science.

By the time he earned his master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2007, Cortes was ready for something new.

“I was 27 years old,” he said. “I had completed my master’s degree and had the opportunity of doing my thesis research in Brazil and China. I wanted to go abroad. I thought, ‘The world is my canvas.’”

Then something life-changing happened. The director of the TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science program retired, and with that the opportunity to continue a legacy of college access was within his reach.

Cortes had not anticipated the career opportunity, but he soon found that he didn’t have to travel the world to make an impact on society. He was promoted to interim director and then full director of the program. For nearly six years Cortes directed the TRIO UBMS STEM precollege program at the Center for College Access and Success. In 2014, Cortes had the opportunity to expand the reach of his STEM program with the newly acquired 21st Century Community Learning Center Pathways Project. In his new role, he directs and manages both the TRIO UBMS and the 21st CCLC programs. These two programs are the core of the newly developed Pathways Initiative, which aims to promote STEM/STEAM services to precollege students who are low-income and first-generation college-bound students with academic needs.

“What gets me going in the mornings is trying to find a way to support students and to give them the opportunity to have access, to allow them to achieve and to become the best version of themselves—especially when they don’t have someone they can reach out to,” he said. “It’s important to provide them that support, that access.”

Cortes is in just the right place to do that. His role as director of TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science allows him to be involved in TRIO state, regional and national associations. As president of Illinois TRIO associations, he oversees the governance of professional development for 120 TRIO programs in the state of Illinois and he also is part of the Educational Opportunity Association’s board of directors. 21st CCLC Pathways serves middle school students enrolled in Berwyn South District 100. The district’s two middle schools are feeders to one of the nine high schools served by TRIO UBMS. Since 2003, both programs have served more than 400 students.

Cortes and his team of two help students recognize and develop their potential, encouraging them to pursue postsecondary degrees in math and science, and to ultimately have careers in STEM fields.

“Aaron and his staff have an extraordinarily high desire to help students learning about math and science,” said Deon Brown, associate director of the Center for College Access and Success.

TRIO UBMS promotes connectivity between academic coursework and application. The programs are project-based, so students learn by applying math and science concepts to real-life interactions. Through the program’s robotics activities, the students are also exposed to competitions at the local and regional levels.

Brown said the students are inspired to achieve with Cortes as a teacher and mentor.

“They do look at him as a role model,” Brown said. “He is a young, energetic Latino male who has accomplished much and continues to do so. Aaron does not just let his position define him. He is always seeking to define his position by seeking new curriculum ideas to improve student knowledge of STEM-related areas. His staff and student participants see this never-ending pursuit every day. You can't help but to be inspired.”

Cortes has a seemingly endless amount of energy. In addition to his job as director of the TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science and 21st CCLC Pathways programs, Cortes developed an annual conference called STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. The focus is to show student participants that math has an impact on all disciplines and not just those associated with STEM. He serves as a Khan Academy Ambassador as part of the Chicago Learn Storm Project, which is aimed to improve math skills in Chicago and the nearby suburbs for students from third through 12th grades. He is a U.S. Department of Agriculture Kika De La Garza Fellow. That program offers faculty and staff from Hispanic Serving Institutions the opportunity to work collaboratively with the USDA to gain insight and understanding of the federal government. He serves as the Illinois TRIO president, is co-chair of the Council for Opportunity in Education’s STEM Communities of Practice and is a Southeastern Association of Educational Opportunity Program Personnel (SAEOPP) Federal TRIO trainer.

Born in Mexico, Cortes moved to the United States at age 16 and attended Marie Curie High School in Chicago. Cortes is not a first-generation college student like many of the children he works with will become, but his family did face financial challenges upon arriving in the United States. After graduating from high school, Cortes was accepted at UIC, but his family couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, he attended Harold Washington College, where he breezed through the math and science courses but was stunned by his struggles in the English courses.

“It was a bit of a shock,” Cortes said. “I was getting A’s in honors literature during high school, and in college I am told I don’t know how to write a sentence correctly.”

Cortes was determined to keep his focus and also changed his mind about his career plans. He started college wanting to be an engineer or an architect, but found the program itself did not align with his interest in social justice and empowering underserved populations. He changed majors at UIC and earned his double bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and Latin American and Latino Studies in 2004. He wanted to attend law school at Illinois Institute of Technology but once again couldn’t afford the tuition. Cortes wasn’t deterred and enrolled in a research opportunity summer program upon completion of his undergraduate degree. This program allowed him to learn about the master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy at UIC, where he could mix his interest in science and social studies. The research opportunity summer program that lead him to graduate school was attached to the TRIO McNair Scholars project, with which Cortes was unfamiliar at the time.

Cortes didn’t have a background in education. In order to gain the expertise he earned a second master’s degree—this one in math and science education at IIT in 2013.

“It’s funny to say that I wanted to go to UIC and eventually made it there and then the same thing happened at IIT, but I eventually found myself there too,” said Cortes, who is now pursing a Ph.D. in Science Education at IIT.  Cortes said he’s glad that he didn’t let obstacles get in the way of his pursuit of learning and achieving.

“You don’t know where your path is really going to take you,” he said. “You don’t know what you will encounter on the way. I think as we grow, we need to persevere and we need to know that no one is against you. You are against yourself when you let things affect you.”

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