How Do You Build Community Connections?

Walking the halls at Peoria High School, Alejandro Perez ’21 saw students, teachers and administrators struggle and succeed at the city’s oldest high school.

He tells of Assistant Principal Doug Atkins-Blaye M.A. ’99 stopping a student without a pass one day. Perez braced for a confrontation between an authority figure with the rules on his side and a student. 

But a different kind of interaction took place. 

Instead of interrogating the student about his lack of a pass, Atkins-Blaye asked about his grades. And when the student confessed to struggling with a subject, the assistant principal offered encouragement and assistance.

Perez saw this dedication to students but was aware problem areas still needed to be addressed.

 “They really didn’t have the resources to handle the influx of Latin-American students,” he said. “… But I noticed it was part of a bigger problem, which was how people were moving away from (the school). So I had the idea of, if you build better relationships between a prestigious university, like Bradley University, and Peoria High, that helps de-stigmatize the high school.

 “I think having Bradley (assistance) would be an additional help.”

School officials told Perez they believe Spanish-speaking students can fall between the cracks because of the pressing need for ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers. Sometimes, multilingual teachers have to be pulled from their classes to serve as emergency translators.

Many of Perez’s high school friends in Louisiana were enrolled in ESL programs. He thought about getting volunteer translators from Bradley to help at Peoria High. 

“I’ve always been in immigrant communities since growing up. Going to church on Saturdays and on Sundays, (going) to Hispanic Mass and then having social events … I’ve always been a part of the community.”

After his senior capstone project at the high school, Perez began to expand his plans.

He thought ALAS (Bradley’s Association of Latin American Students) could help connect with multilingual students seeking public service opportunities. But the global pandemic stifled plans for that as schools, including Bradley and Peoria High, went to online learning. 

Perez sees the university continuing to build bridges with the Latinx community and other underserved groups in Peoria. 

“I think Bradley is starting to become ... more socially aware of its environment and trying to take more steps to accommodate a more diverse student body,” he said. 

As his graduation and grad school loomed and his efforts to bolster Peoria High slowed, Perez became involved with a demanding internship at The Immigration Project in Normal, Ill., a legal team aimed at helping with immigration cases.

“I helped people fill out their (citizenship applications),” Perez said about one instance with the group. “I’m also a community navigator for them. Which means when there’s a problem within the Peoria community, I try to call and see who I need to (reach).”

This fall, Perez will attend the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He also plans to become active in BAILA (Bradley Association of International and Latino Alumni) and enlist its support, along with seeking current students interested in outreach.

“I plan on getting a master’s in public policy, so I can actually, really change the narrative surrounding immigration,” Perez said. “When I look at the broader conversation of where it’s at and where Bradley’s heading in terms of truly building those bridges with the community, it does make me hopeful.”