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Pilsen dorm gives college students a home

LCas6-story dormitory opened its doors students last week. |  John H. White~Sun-Times photos

La Casa, a 6-story dormitory, opened its doors to students last week. | John H. White~Sun-Times photos

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Updated: September 21, 2012 6:13AM

For several months, the construction of a building in the heart of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood has created a buzz among its Latino residents and business owners.

It is a modern six-story dormitory appropriately named La Casa (the house) that opened its doors last week to 100 middle- to lower-income undergraduate students attending college all over Chicago. The concept was rooted in wishful thinking about 18 years ago, according to La Casa Director Maria Bucio, as in wouldn’t it be great if we could provide housing and educational support to students in need?

Ten years ago, La Casa began taking shape thanks to the Resurrection Project, a community service organization in Pilsen founded in 1990 by six churches. The nonprofit has since invested more than $200 million in the neighborhood, spokesman Ulises Silva said.

The group secured $8 million in state funding and an additional $1 million in donations for La Casa.

The result is a thing of beauty.

Like in a typical dorm, two students share a room. Five rooms share a common lounge with a flat-screen television and a beautiful kitchen with granite countertops and breakfast bar.

The intangible resources are even better: Students will have access to tutors, educational workshops and professionals willing to donate their time as mentors.

“We will be there to support them,” Bucio told me last week. “They will always have someone to go to. We will remove the barriers.”

The goal is to help the 100 students receive their bachelor’s degrees in a four-year period, Bucio said. Ninety-eight of the students are the first in their families to attend college.

They range from freshmen to seniors attending DePaul, Loyola, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Columbia, Malcolm X, the University of Illinois at Chicago and community colleges on a full-time basis. Most will go to school via the CTA’s Pink Line just a minute away.

Anahi Tapia moved in Wednesday after attending an information session at Navy Pier for the Obama administration’s deportation deferral program for undocumented immigrants.

Since graduating from Curie High School in 2007, Tapia has been in college, first at Harold Washington and now IIT as a psychology and sociology major. Her home environment is far from conducive to studying because her family lives in a cramped apartment.

“I don’t have a big enough room to study,” she says. “I sleep in a computer room. I needed resources to concentrate.”

Tapia could not afford housing until La Casa came along. She is a Presidential Scholar, and IIT has awarded her a partial privately funded tuition scholarship (because she is undocumented she does not qualify for federal- and state-based financial aid). But housing there would cost more than $8,500 for the school year.

La Casa costs $6,300 and offers need-based scholarships for which Tapia qualified. Bucio and her colleagues are trying to raise more money to offset costs further in the future.

In a perfect world, college students from all ethnic and economic backgrounds could spend their first year or two living in campus dorms to soak in the college experience and meet people from diverse cultures — from the children of wealthy CEOs to those who grew up on farms.

But skyrocketing college costs make that unattainable for many. That’s why La Casa, whose organizers say is a one-of-a-kind project in the U.S., is a vital and inspiring concept.

While most of its students this year are Latino, that’s not a requirement, Bucio said. La Casa is open to students all over the country who qualify for financial aid and want to attend a Chicago college full time.

“As a former member of this community, it’s a very emotional project,” Bucio said. “It seems idealistic, but it’s doable. This is going to work. We’re here to help.”

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