The unveiling of Northeastern Illinois University’s “El Centro” building — that bright blue-and-yellow modern building that had Kennedy Expressway drivers gazing for months — brought out powerful Chicago politicians and alumni on Tuesday.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., state Sen. Iris Martinez and Ald. Rey Colon (35th) in a rainy dedication in front of the 63,000-square-foot satellite facility in the 3900 block of Avondale, just off the Kimball exit on the Kennedy.
Durbin told a crowd of hundreds that the new building symbolized the future of diversity in Chicago.
“This building is a symbol of who we are and what we will be,” Durbin said.
“We know the immigrant experience in America: People who come here and struggle against the odds, sacrifice so the next generation will have another chance,” Durbin said. “What helps them succeed and endure? Faith, family and institutions like Northeastern University that believe in the diversity of America, believe in the fact that we are stronger because we gather from all corners of the earth in this great city, and this great state and this great nation.”
Northeastern President Dr. Sharon Hahs called Durbin “a friend of every student in the country.”
“At Northeastern we do indeed celebrate the diversity of our students staff and faculty and in particular our work with undocumented students in inspired by the leadership of Sen. Durbin, and by our very own alumnus Rep. Luis Gutierrez,” Hahs said.
Gutierrez graduated from Northeastern in 1977. He told the crowd he protested to help an English teacher get tenure during his sophomore year. The teacher, Harold Hill, taught him “grammar and punctuation and basic English language skills that would last a lifetime.”
He didn’t get tenure, but from the protest evolved an English-language workshop program that remains today, he said.
“I have a lot of people to thank, but let me tell you I could not be where I’m at with my diploma if he had not been my mentor and my guide as an English major in the English department, which may not have granted him tenure, but one day allowed me to be granted a seat in the U.S. Congress of the United States of America,” Gutierrez said.
Emanuel said his mother has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Northeastern University after going back to school “later in life.”
“This university and this building so much encapsulates the American dream, giving everybody who has traveled as my grandfather did in 1917, leaving Eastern Europe to come here to give another generation a chance at the American dream,” Emanuel said. “This beautiful building is a testament to the beauty that goes on inside, and the dreams that are allowed to be realized.”
The $27 million building will be home to Northeastern’s computer sciences, special education, justice studies and social work students. El Centro is one of four Northeastern campuses, and it caters to those striving to get degrees while working — with most classes in the evening and on weekends.