UIC Latinx community members to be celebrated

The Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Latinos (CCSL) established the CCSL Recognition Awards to acknowledge the incredibly hardworking and committed individuals who serve the Latinx community.

This year we proudly announce our 2020-2021 academic school year CCSL Recognition Award recipients are:

  • Lily Diego-Johnson – Civil Service Awardee
  • Maria Caceres – Academic Professional Awardee
  • Aixa Alfonso – Faculty Awardee
  • Nilmarie Ayala-Fontanez – Graduate Student Awardee
  • Victoria Soliz – Undergraduate Student Awardee

Up to five recipients are awarded annually among the following UIC populations: faculty, academic professionals, civil service employees, graduate students and undergraduate students. The candidate pool becomes more competitive with each year, and we want to thank all the nominators this academic year. The awardees were identified as leaders who are actively involved with Latinx issues at the university and are role models/mentors to members of the Latinx community.

Read the remarkable contributions these Latinx community members have made at UIC and in their community.

Dr. Aixa Alfonso – Faculty Awardee

Dr. Aixa Alfonso, a native Puerto Rican, earned her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1986. In 1996, she joined the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She, along with undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students have addressed questions on how synaptic vesicle proteins are targeted to the appropriate cellular compartment and how neurons acquire and maintain their terminal differentiation characteristics. Fundamental questions related to the function of the nervous system. Alfonso is the recipient of a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and has been funded for her research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). She served the scientific community in the capacity of program director in the Division of Integrated Organismal Systems in the Biology Directorate at NSF between 2007 and 2009 and as a visiting associate dean of the Graduate College Diversity office for 2.5 years after returning to UIC.

Throughout her professional career, she has also been committed to access and the success of underrepresented students enrolled in STEM fields. In addition to 11 graduate students, she has directly mentored 70 undergraduate research projects. Among these students, 30% identify as Latino/a/x. Since 2016, Alfonso has served as Project Director of L@s GANAS, a HSI-STEM program supported by the US Department of Education designed to promote Latin@ student success in their STEM careers. Receipt of this grant was instrumental to UIC achieving the federal designation of Hispanic Serving Institution.

At UIC, she has been a voice for inclusion of Latino/a/x individuals at all levels of the institution. She has been an active member of the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Latinos since arriving at UIC and served for two years as the faculty co-Chair of CCSL. She was also a co-Chair of the Chancellor’s Task Force on Hispanic Serving Institution. Dr. Alfonso continues to advocate for equity in her position as a member of the Diversity Committee in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her commitment has been and will continue to be to advocate, push for, and find resources for our community, particularly our students.

Maria Caceres – Academic Professional Awardee

Caceres immigrated from Guatemala at the age of 14 and has served Latinx communities in Chicago from a young age. During her high school years, Maria tutored ESL students in English, math, and science. While in college, Caceres quickly became involved in organizations that promoted Latinx student advancement. Along with the director of multicultural affairs, Caceres developed curriculum and coordinated activities for a summer bridge program for incoming minority students.

After graduating from college, Caceres decided to pursue a career in nursing. Upon graduating from the Licensed Practical Nursing program at Wright College, Caceres took on a second job to teach English and medical terminology to ESL students enrolled in the CNA program at Instituto del Progreso Latino. She mentored and motivated her students to pursue a career in the nursing field; and prepared them to take the state examination.

Caceres has been a research coordinator at the University of Illinois Chicago for over 15 years. In this role, she has coordinated multiple community-based research studies that focused primarily on health risk reduction in minority populations. She is passionate and highly motivated to improve the quality of life of both young and old Latinx community members. She is aware of the racial and ethnic health disparities that exist in our society; therefore, takes advantage of all interactions to educate Latinx and other minorities on health promoting topics such as nutrition, physical activity, and elder care in order to enhance their well-being.

Maria is an active member of the Chicago Latinx community. She has used her bilingual skills to assist immigrant families with translation of their Citizenship Application packets and served as translator during their interviews. She is involved with Latinx organizations in fundraising efforts  to provide low-income Latinx community members with meals and gifts during the Holiday Season. As a parent volunteer at her daughters’ school, Maria’s goal is to mentor young Latinx students and connect them to resources that will help them succeed academically.


Lily Diego-Johnson – Civil Service Awardee

Diego-Johnson is a disabled, Mexican, cisgender, immigrant woman raised on Chicago’s Southwest Side. She is a first-generation college student getting her Ph.D. in Disability Studies at UIC. Her research interests are in culturally attuned responses to mental disabilities guided by disability justice principles, particularly for Black, Indigenous, people of color with disabilities. She also works at UIC’s Disability Cultural Center as the program coordinator and is a Licensed Social Worker in Illinois. Throughout her time at UIC, she has offered support and guidance to other Latinx, disabled students in navigating college life, connecting to resources, career exploration, and thinking through disability identity. She writes personal narratives and performs her poetry to connect with others and bring people into conversation.

Nilmarie Ayala-Fontanez – Graduate Student Awardee

Ayala-Fontanez was born and raised in Humacao, Puerto Rico. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she completed a master’s in Pathology at Case Western Reserve University. Currently, she is finishing her last year of pharmacy school at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy. During her academic years, she has been directly involved in the advancement of the Latinx students in higher education as well as directly serving the Latinx community. As a native Spanish speaker, she has served as interpreter, translator, and educator as well as editor of patient friendly and pharmacy continuing education materials. Ayala-Fontanez is also the co-founder and past President of the Hispanic/Latinx Pharmacy Student Association, the only pharmacy organization on campus dedicated to serve not only the Latinx pharmacy student but also the Chicagoland Latinx community. Her passion and dedication for the Latinx community have been evident throughout her pharmacy educational years by her continuous involvement in community-based projects, vaccination clinics as well as many other educational and outreach events. Nilmarie is an advocate for better access to healthcare and improvement of literacy among underserved communities. Nilmarie also aspires to inspire other Latinas to apply for professional programs and to be able to open as many doors as she can for her community.

Victoria Soliz – Undergraduate Student Awardee

Soliz is a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry with plans to attend medical school to become a physician. As a member of the Hispanic community, her goals in becoming a physician are rooted in supporting minority communities that are statistically unrepresented in research and the medical field. In pursuit of her goals, her involvement with the Latino Health and Science Enrichment Program, Medicina Scholars, Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Las Gas Mentoring Program, Las Ganas Research Fellowship, and Society of Future Physicians (SFP), demonstrates her commitment to medicine and the Latino Community. Her research interest earned her the opportunity to work as an undergraduate research assistant who studied Vitamin D and prostate cancer disparities in African American men at the Nonn Lab and a fellowship with the Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative (ChicagoCHEC). She is a proud member of the sorority Alpha Phi Gamma National Sorority Inc. UIC Chapter where she further refined her leadership, teamwork, and service skills. Soliz is known for her dedication, perseverance, and leadership that are exemplified in her commitment to academic excellence, community service, cultural awareness, and development.

Please save the date as we hope to honor both this year and last year recipients at the celebration event scheduled for Friday, October 1 at 3 p.m. 

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