Located between the Marshall Square and Pilsen neighborhoods, Instituto del Progreso Latino has been a significant pillar in workforce development and advancing education among the Latino community. In addition to their career pathways programs centered around healthcare, manufacturing, and retail, the organization also operates two public charter high schools and a nursing college. The community-based organization was founded in 1977 to help advance and improve the lives of Chicago’s immigrant and Latino communities through education, training, and employment, while still preserving their cultural identities.

“I was the only Latina in the majority of my classes in college and felt very isolated. None of my peers looked like me. It made the statistics about Latinos having high youth dropout out rates and low college enrollment rates very real for me,” said Yesenia Cervantes, the Dean of Career Pathways and Community Affairs at Instituto. By the time she graduated, Yesenia knew she wanted to help the Latino community with pursuing educational opportunities and has dedicated her career to that mission for the last 18 years.

“Out of all my other job opportunities, I knew I could have the biggest impact at Instituto because the organization’s mission aligns with my own. Through the work we’ve done as a team, we have impacted thousands of people and helped them pursue better job opportunities and pursue a better quality of life.”

Women who attended our customer service and sales training in the retail program now manage their own businesses. They’re able to do their business pitches in English, confidently move around the city, and accomplish so much on their own. My mom was a business owner, so this part of my personal mission. I feel so proud of them, and it touches my heart to know we could be part of that.

Yesenia Cervantes

Yesenia’s connection to her work at Instituto is also a very personal one. “My parents didn’t go school, so when I see people their age who never spoke a word of English speaking the language, finishing their degree, or finding a job, I feel so proud of them. I see a reflection of my own family. It fills my heart to see their transformation and know that we are a part of their journey to success. That’s what keeps me passionate about Instituto.”

Like many other community nonprofits, Instituto had to pivot and quickly adapt to virtually serving the community when COVID-19 shut down the city this past spring.

“It caught us all by surprise, but we had to move fast to get our classes and programs online. It was a challenge because we had never hosted classes remotely, but I’m proud of our team and students for quickly adapting to technology like Zoom and Google Classroom. Social media has also helped us reach people and stay connected, since most of our recruiting is by word of mouth,” said Yesenia. “Some of our students lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, so we had to react quickly and organized our first virtual job fair within the first month. Grants helped us buy computers and other important equipment for students who didn’t have the necessary tools to access the courses online.”

We’ve been able to expand our programs and support services to the refugee communities and are currently working with individuals from China, Afghanistan, South Africa, and the Congo. It’s exciting to expand our reach and help a diverse community.

Yesenia Cervantes

During this difficult time for all communities, Instituto continues to be a “diverse organization with resources to help anyone who is interested in finding another career path or improving their quality of life,” Yesenia added. “We want people to know we’re here to help.”