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RAP alums celebrate 25 years of program's success!

Published August 11, 2014
Ledora Williams congratulates RAP director Jesse C. Thompson Jr. at the 25th anniversary gala.

URBANA, Ill. – The remarkable statistics tell the story. After 25 years of recruiting promising high-school students from diverse, under-represented backgrounds and placing them in summer internships on campus and in companies like Monsanto and Kraft Foods, program director Jesse Thompson can boast that 96 percent of Research Apprentice Program (RAP) participants have completed college degrees, 70 percent at the University of Illinois and 82 percent of those students in the U of I College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).

“But the fact that these young people were never statistics to Jesse Thompson is undoubtedly the secret of RAP’s success,” said ACES associate dean Laurie Kramer.

True enough: Thompson, assistant dean for academic programs, took a personal interest in each RAP student who crossed his path, sometimes convincing their families to allow them to attend and making sure they received the unique tools they needed to develop their potential and follow their dreams.

Drop an apprentice’s name or ask for a favorite memory and Thompson begins to reminisce.

“One of my best memories is recruiting Diana Rodriguez. Her parents didn’t speak English very well, but they were very polite and family-oriented, and I continued to talk with them about the potential I saw in their daughter. I knew that a close-knit Hispanic family wasn’t likely to send their daughter who was a freshman in high school off to spend four weeks on a college campus.

“But they entrusted her to us, and she completed three summers in the program, finished a U of I degree, and began to work with migrant families in our Child Care Resource Service. Now she’s the associate director at the University of Illinois-Chicago in the Hispanic Center for Excellence in Medicine, and we’ve collaborated quite a bit in the last two years. The young lady that I recruited is now my colleague,” he said.

Last weekend RAP alumni—industry leaders, scientists, and educators— returned to campus to celebrate the program’s success and the part it has played in their own achievements, and to thank Thompson, its visionary founder who mentored the young scholars and convinced corporate sponsors to create internships for them. Among the founding companies eager to hire RAP alums when they became U of I graduates were Monsanto, Cargill, and Quaker Oats—now part of PepsiCo. A USDA Higher Education Challenge grant provided initial funding.

U of I President Robert Easter commended Thompson’s vision and leadership at RAP’s 25th anniversary gala.

“Nearly two decades before the critical need to expand America’s workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) became part of the national dialogue, the U of I was already leading the way — thanks to RAP— and has now helped steer more than 1,200 minority high-school students toward STEM-related careers since its inaugural summer program 25 years ago,” Easter said.

RAP offerings include RAP 1, a four-week career exploration, a seven-week research-focused RAP 2 session, a one-week overview called wRAP, and a transition to college experience called the Young Scholars Program. Many high-school students participate in more than one offering over the course of four summers.

This pre-college STEM education in the College of ACES gives students hands-on experience with real science-related projects, has math and science learning at its academic core, emphasizes technology that utilizes computers, is team project focused, involves mentoring by university scientists and graduate students in STEM disciplines, engagement by business and industry professionals, and promotes creativity, critical thinking, and STEM career preparation, Thompson said.

“This exceptional program, especially when a participant is engaged over multiple summers, propels a student’s development into the stratosphere,” Kramer said.

Easter added that RAP reflects the U of I’s land-grant mission to open the doors of higher education to the children of all classes—not just the elite—and to give every deserving student the life-changing opportunities that a U of I degree provides.

Among the speakers at this year’s day-long RAP festivities were program alums Christie Cruise-Harper, Landon Terry, and Lynda Cabrales.

Cruise-Harper described herself as rambunctious and rough around the edges when Thompson first met her. More than once, the young Cruise, who came from East St. Louis, was ready to give up. She almost didn’t come at all because her brother had died two months before she was scheduled to arrive on campus.

“She admits to having had a chip on her shoulder,” Thompson said. “She tells me now, Dr. Thompson, I thought you were going to send me home at any moment. I replied, I thought about sending you home, but I also thought about the environment you’d grown up in, and I knew how that influenced your behaviors. I thought if we could get you to see who you could be, we’d have somebody special. And now we truly do.”

Cruise-Harper benefited from participating in the campus chapter of MANRRS, a national organization that Thompson helped to establish. MANRRS helps students in ag-related fields develop communication skills, build a resume, learn how to present their research to groups, and develop professionalism.

She is now assistant dean of students and director of the Office of Multicultural Programs at Maryville University. “It’s my turn to give to others the way Dr. Thompson gave to me,” she said.

RAP alumni Landon Terry is the R&D product development manager and leader at Branding Iron Holdings in Sauget, Ill. In his previous position at McCain Foods, he was the first—and so far—the only employee to win an innovation award two years running.

“He just has that kind of creativity. He was always planning to conquer the world,” said Thompson.

At the U of I, Terry was the national student president of MANRRS. He credits “unique leadership experiences in a multicultural college environment” for his success in the corporate world.

Thompson stressed that Illinois alums are proud alums, eager to help each other and the university. When former RAP intern Lynda Cabrales graduated from the U of I and went to work for Oscar Mayer, Thompson wasn’t surprised to learn that she had solicited a gift from her employer to benefit RAP. He was surprised to learn that Oscar Mayer had given one of the largest gifts in the history of the program.

“When you see how deeply our past RAP interns revere Dr. Thompson, it’s not surprising to learn that he himself was mentored as an undergraduate. Jesse sees himself in these young people,” Kramer said.

Thompson said he didn’t have any of these opportunities when he was in school. “But one of my professors had a vision of what I could be. He spent a lot of time trying to get me to see myself as he saw me, and when I did, my grades improved and I developed confidence in myself.”

That newfound confidence bore fruit when Thompson was a graduate student in the U of I agricultural education program. He and three other students wished to do a class project in which they would “talk about diversity in the College of Agriculture.”

They were surprised when college administrators agreed to let them do an evaluation.

“We made some recommendations and, believe it or not, they took us seriously. They hired me to begin to implement some of our ideas when I was still a graduate student—the MANRRS organization grew out of that period. When I graduated, I went to work for the University of Florida, but after a short time, I was asked to come back and expand the program that had begun during my studies,” Thompson said.

Thompson calls the U of I a glass-half-full kind of place. “When the glass is half full, people are willing to take a chance on ideas, and innovation, and change. Since I’ve been here, all the deans have valued and supported diversity and inclusiveness in this college, and that’s what has made RAP what it is today,” he added.

Who is the typical RAP participant? “Sixty-six percent were African American, 24 percent were Hispanic/Latino, 68 percent were female, and 67 percent came from Chicagoland, with others from every corner of the U.S. and Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Greece,” he said.

Can they succeed on a national level? At least one RAP graduate has received first-place honors at a national conference or competition every year for the past two decades, he added.

And what is the typical post-RAP profile beyond that 96 percent college graduation rate? For one thing, 60 percent of those grads have gone on to pursue careers related to an ACES major. And 35 percent first attended graduate or professional school in human health, veterinary medicine, law, economics, finance, and environmental and human sciences.

Thompson won’t deny that it’s wonderful to be on the receiving end of so much affection and praise, but the best part, he said, is knowing that the values he’s championed are now woven permanently into the fabric of the U of I College of ACES.

“I know it doesn’t just depend on me. I’m confident that RAP will continue to adapt and grow for the benefit of the next generation of participants,” he said.

To help these bright and talented RAP graduates meet the increasing financial demands of attending the university, the College of ACES has established the Jesse C. Thompson Scholarship Fund to support RAP alums who are admitted in an ACES major at the U of I. Initial gifts have come from Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, John Deere, and Monsanto, with Hendrick House providing a housing scholarship. An ACES administrator who strongly believes in the mission of this program has issued a personal challenge: gifts of $50 or more will be matched dollar for dollar up to $5,000. Contributions may be directed to the College of ACES Office of Advancement at 217-333-9355 or Marla Todd at martodd@illinois.edu.