An Interview with UIC’s 2017 Lincoln Laureate, Mariel Rancel
By Sam Scruby
Since the Lincoln Laureate program’s founding in 1975, the Lincoln Academy of Illinois has annually chosen one senior each from more than 60 universities across the state to receive the Abraham Lincoln Civic Engagement Award. Recipients of the award are chosen based on leadership, public service, and academic excellence. They are inducted by the Governor as Lincoln Academy Student Laureates and receive a Lincoln medallion and an award of $1,000. In 2017, the Lincoln Laureate recipient was former UIC student Mariel Rancel, who is now a graduate student at UIC pursuing a masters in education. Below is an interview on her process of becoming the Lincoln Laureate recipient.
Before you decided to apply for the award, what did you know about it and what made you want to apply?
Last year, the Office of External Fellowships was changing leadership. Normally, the application process is that you get nominated, and then students will submit essays. But because of the change in leadership, the whole nomination process got pushed back, so there was no student supplement: it was just the first part, a faculty member on campus nominated you. But this year I know it’s different in that you have to prepare an additional statement to be considered in that process. The person who prepared my statement was Honors College Advisor Sara Mehta, and she asked for my resume and an updated list of my activities on campus, and my LinkedIn profile. I did some snooping on Google and saw for 2015-16 that they did have to prepare essays, but she told me there was no need. But there were a couple students who were also nominated the same way I was, so they just reviewed the recommendation letters and decided.
But now you would need the essays?
You’d have to get nominated and then submit an essay for the reward. It’s still a committee headed by the OEF (Office of External Fellowships). But as to the other part of your first question, I’d actually never heard of the award when they nominated me, so I started looking into it. At first it was actually kind of hard to find information on it, since the Lincoln Academy of Illinois plays so many different roles in the state.
Could you tell me about your major and your time at UIC?
As an undergraduate, I graduated with a B.S. in Biological Sciences and minors in Human Nutrition and Disability and Human Development—it sounds like three minors, but it’s just two! I was an Urban Public Policy Fellow in my junior year, so it would’ve been the 2016-2017 school year. And I was an undergraduate researcher; I researched with Dr. Chelsea Singleton, Dr. Lisa Tussing-Humphreys, and did a short research project under Dr. Donald Wink in chemistry. The most research time I think I spent was with Dr. David Marquez in the exercise psychology lab on the West Campus. So I had a lot of research experience. I am a 2014 Golden Apple scholar, so I’ve always had an interest in teaching. As a graduate student, I applied to various programs but decided on the UIC M.ED. in science education, and I’ll be certified to teach Biology and Chemistry, so now I’m working in a CPS chemistry classroom to complete my student teaching. This semester, I’m also working as a TA for the cell biology lab course here on campus, and as an undergraduate I was in the Peer Leader program at the Science Learning Center for the organic chemistry course sequence.
That’s a lot of extracurricular activities there already—are there any other, maybe non-academic extracurriculars, or does that cover it?
Those were really just the academic focused ones. For my junior and senior year, the past two academic years, I was president of the Union for Puerto Rican students here on campus, so we organized the annual spring conference, the Pa’Lante Conference, and in particular at our conference last year we helped fundraise for the school of visual arts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and I served for about two-and-a-half years on the LARES Leaders program, which is a program organized by Latin American Recruitment and Education Services here at UIC. We send representatives from different Latino student organizations on a monthly basis to collaborate and see how to make the university a better place for Latino students—all students, really, but we focus on a Latino agenda. I was a mentor for the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) clubs and also the newly established L@S GANAS program for Latinos in STEM when I was in my senior year. And I was a mentor for WISE and hosted WISE tea parties, like networking events for Women in STEM on campus. I did other volunteering just by myself; when I first got to campus I kind of didn’t know what to do, so I started with volunteering at Rush Hospital and at UIC. I also did volunteering with an organization called Healing Arts in my sophomore year. UIC had a program through the office of Student Development and Leadership Services—I think there’s a new name now, but it was the Student Service Leaders program and we helped coordinate the MLK day of service, so I was in the Austin neighborhood at a place called Youth Outreach Services, and we were planting their Garden for the spring. So definitely there was a lot of service components: it was important to me as an undergraduate to have a lot of service, and I think that was part of the reason I won this award, because it really rested on young people who not only had academic talent but were committed to serving their communities and serving the state of Illinois.
So serving communities and the state of Illinois was your motivation for getting involved in all the things you got involved in at UIC?
Yeah, I want to be a science teacher. I think teaching is an intellectually challenging profession and one that demands your involvement in the community, so I wanted to develop these networking skills in college and begin to serve the school I went to, so I can do similar things at the schools I’ll work at in the future as a CPS teacher. It was important to me to sort of get all these different experiences, as now I’m a resource to my students and can say, “Hey, we should try this at our school,” or “I’ve heard of this organization, maybe you should look and see if they have any volunteer opportunities,” or “This is something that we found successful in one of my student organizations, maybe we should try with the students and see if it motivates them more.” It was really the teaching thing that drove the service component, but also my mom. My commitment to service definitely started when I was in middle school and I started working as a volunteer program aide for the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago, a day camp in Palos Heights, Illinois. I worked for five years, beginning in late middle school and all the way through high school, I worked at least a month every summer. It was kind of like an unpaid day job, mentoring younger girls at camps, leading them in games and songs, but also teaching them this kind of natural experience, like a biology teacher in the camp: teaching about fire safety, how to identify different trees, poison ivy, and doing crafts. It was really fun; I really liked it, and that’s kind of what gave me the teaching bug, because I like working with younger people.
Do you think it was working with kids that caused you to want to become a teacher and not the other way around? You didn’t want to teach before that?
Yeah, I just found it really rewarding, and I really liked science, and I thought, “Oh, well it might be really cool to be a science teacher.”
How do you think the Lincoln Laureate award is going to help you achieve your goal of becoming a teacher? Do you think it already has helped in the year since you won it?
I’m sure it made a positive impression as I applied to graduate schools, because I was offered significant financial help at more than one of the schools I applied to. It has also helped ground me andbe recognized for that commitment in particular, that commitment to service. Talking with people about it, it made me realize how it can become a lot about “Me, me, me,” “How am I going to progress,” “What’s the best school I can go to,” and we tend to forget about turning around and helping those who might not have the same privileges as us. So I think being recognized for that really affirmed me in my mission—teaching is what I want to do; it doesn’t matter if people say that I should do something else or that it’s not worth my time. That direct human impact, networking, and organizing is so important to me, and having validation for all of that is really important to my journey and my story as a teacher. It made me want to recognize some other people for their commitments, and I did after that: I tried in my own student organization to really spotlight some of the students stepping up that year and support them, even as a TA, and thinking a lot about my students, recognizing them. Sometimes it is nice to be recognized and to see that you’re on the right path, doing something good.
Is there anything else you think should be mentioned about the Lincoln Laureate award or your experiences or goals?
You could also mention that I’m a product of Project SEEEC (Science Education for Excellence and Equity in Chicago). It also has a really big commitment to transformative science education, and it’s targeted specifically at urban areas. There are similar programs in New York and LA of teachers who want to change the way we teach science and reach more students, especially students from underrepresented groups who traditionally haven’t had access to the sciences, or who may be interested but don’t feel supported in those subjects.