Illini Everywhere: Puerto Rican Illini, Since 1908

Since at least 1908, Puerto Rican students have been attending the University of Illinois. Some early Puerto Rican Illini have included actors, civil engineers, dancers, educators, lecturers, librarians, literary critics, mechanical engineers, medical doctors, municipal and sanitary engineers, musicians, student leaders, translators, university professors, and writers too.

Read on to learn more about early Puerto Rican Illini!

Illinois – Puerto Rico Connections

As early as 1907, former Education Professor and Director Edwin Grant Dexter became Commissioner of Education in Puerto Rico. While in 1913, University of Puerto Rico (UPR) College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts Dean Frank L. Stevens joined Illinois faculty as Plant Pathology Professor. Future Illinois Education Professor and Dean Thomas E. Benner (Record Series 10/1/21) had been the first full-time chancellor of UPR (1924-1929) and he returned as a special advisor (1962-1969) too. At the same time, former Ophthalmology Professor Albert B. Hale (Record Series 52/28/20) worked as an assistant professor of social science at the UPR too.

In fact, during the 1920s and early 1930s, Puerto Rican novelist, literary critic, and poet José Agustín Balseiro taught in the Department of Romance Languages. [1] Not long later, during July and August of 1939, Library Cataloger Miss Edna Mae Brown studied in Puerto Rico. [2]

From 1953 to 1959, Urban and Regional Planning Professor Scott Keyes (Record Series 12/8/20) was an economic consultant of the Puerto Rican Planning Board. In 1956, Anthropology Professor Julian H. Steward (Record Series 15/2/21) edited a volume of research title The People of Puerto Rico, synthesizing the research of multiple social scientists from Puerto Rico and abroad. From 1959 to 1961, Geology Professor Ralph E. Grim (Record Series 15/11/27) was researching Puerto Rican clays and feldspars.

During the 1960s, Anthropology Professor Oscar Lewis and Ruth Maslow Lewis (Record Series 15/2/20) studied low-income family experiences in Puerto Rico. As early as the 1970s, as the Office of International Programs and Studies Director’s File tells us (Record Series 24/2/5) multiple Illinois – Puerto Rican projects were pursued, including exchange programs with University of Puerto Rico campuses at Río Piedras and Mayagüez, and a soybean research project too. In 1967, Visiting Professor of Law Frederick K. Beutel (Record Series of 14/2/23) had published The Operation of the Bad-Check Laws in Puerto Rico. In 1974, at least one Geography Department senior thesis (Record Series 15/10/10) studied the economic and environmental considerations involving in locating a superport in Puerto Rico.

Early Alumni in Puerto Rico

Some of the earliest alumni in Puerto Rico had arrived in connection with U.S., Spanish, and Puerto Rican fighting during the war and subsequent occupation. William A. Hawley, (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1900), of Dundee, Illinois, was a volunteer infantryman in the war in Puerto Rico, from 1898 to 1899. [3] Oscar L. Housel, (B.S. Electrical Engineering, 1901), of Galesburg, Illinois, served in the U.S. Hospital Corps during the invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898. [4] John T. Scott, (LL.B., 1905), of Sublette, Illinois, also fought in the Cuban and Puerto Rican war campaigns in 1898. [5] Years later, Samuel M. Thompson, (A.B. 1909), of Harrisburg, Illinois, later became an Attorney at Law and First Lieutenant of the 373rd Infantry at Camp Las Casas, in Puerto Rico. [6] Russell S. Colton, (B.S. Municipal and Sanitary Engineering, 1916), of Racine, Wisconsin, later became a 1st Lieutenant R.O.T.C. in San Juan, in 1918, and he was stationed at Camp Las Casas with the 375th Infantry. [7]

Other alumni were involved in agriculture, livestock raising, or biological research. Edgar L. Hill, (B.S. 1895), of Columbus, Ohio, found work in dairying and farming in Carolina, Puerto Rico, from 1899 until 1905. [8] Frank D. Gardner, (B.S. Agriculture, 1891), of Gilman, Illinois, was an agricultural experiment station director in Puerto Rico, from 1901 until 1904. [9] Philip Garman, (PhD, 1916), of Lexington, Kentucky, was an entomologist who, at one time, studied parasitic Puerto Rican fungi. [10] Forrest E. Kempton, (PhD, 1918), of Centerville, Indiana, took a position with the Puerto Rican Experiment Station at Rio Piedros after graduation. [11]

While other alumni included educators too. Lewis A. Robinson, (A.B. 1898; M, 1901) was an Education and Psychology Professor from 1912 until 1914. [12] Ethel Crum, (A.B. 1907), of Lexington, Illinois, became a teacher in Caguas, Puerto Rico, from 1912 until at least 1918. [13]

In fact, there were alumni engineers working in Puerto Rico too. Albert A. Van Petten, (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1907), of Cramer, Illinois, had a long career in Puerto Rican railroad engineering. After graduation, Mr. Van Petten took a position as a civil engineer with the Guanico Centrale (1907-09) and as Assistant Construction Engineer at Central Fortuna (1906-10), then he became Civil Engineer for Central Pagan (1910-12), before becoming a Superintendent for the Porto Rico Construction Company (1912-15). In 1915, Mr. Van Petten left for Cuba to become a Chief Engineer for the Punta Alegre Sugar Company. [14] While Polish Illini Mr. Harry Polkowski, (B.S. Civil Engineering, 1912), of Poland, took a civil engineering position with E. C. Steward Construction in San Juan. [15]

The sole lawyer might have been Mr. Oscar B. Frazer, (A.B. 1908), of Rock Island, Illinois, worked as a stenographer in New York City, before becoming a lawyer in Puerto Rico in 1913. [16]

While just under thirty years later, in 1941, during a tour of Latin America and the Caribbean, Journalism alumni John L. Strohm (Record Series 26/20/75) had visited San Juan and Hacienda El Semil in late January.


Mr. Rafael A. Soto, (B.S. Mechanical Engineering, 1912; A.M. Spanish, 1915), “the Beau Brummel of the Department of Romance Languages” and an avid bicyclist, according to one DI writer, prepared at the University of Puerto Rico, before coming to Illinois. [17] While he was a student, Mr. Soto was involved in multiple student organizations, including Spanish Club (and vice-president in 1909), Le Cercle Francais (French Circle), Cosmopolitan Club, and Latin American Club. Foreshadowing a future career in language and literature instruction, while still an engineering student, Mr. Soto tutored Spanish off-campus too.

Mr. Soto was a frequent speaker on campus too. In Spanish Club, Mr. Soto gave talks on Puerto Rican Schools and another on coffee in Puerto Rico. In Latin American Club, he gave a comparative talk on Hispano-American Universities. In French Club, he gave a talk on the role of Puerto Rico in World War One. Off campus, he gave a talk about Puerto Rico and its music for the local Epworth League, and he narrated a slideshow “Life in Puerto Rico” for the Y.M.C.A. For the Romance Club, he gave an account of his interview with Spanish journalist, politician, and novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez.

Mr. Soto was also a translator and singer. In fact, he translated into Spanish and sang the Illinois State Song “By Thy Rivers Gently Flowing“, and he was known to sing Puerto Rican serenades at some Club events too (November 1915, April 1920, May 1920, October 1920, November 1920, and April 1921).

Mr. Soto was also an actor. Again, in Spanish Club, he played Don Lope de Urrea in a campus performance of Antonio García Gutiérrez’s “El Trovador”, and he played the lead role in a one-act comedy “Después de la Lluvia el Sol” by linguist and playwright Rafael Díez de la Cortina y Olaeta.

While he was a University instructor, Mr. Soto supervised multiple student productions, including:

After graduation, Mr. Soto briefly taught Spanish and Math at the West Texas Military Academy, before returning to Illinois to complete a graduate degree and to later work as an instructor too. Later, Mr. Soto joined the University of North Dakota faculty. In 1923, Mr. Soto returned to campus to continue his graduate studies. While on campus again, Mr. Soto was active in student life as an officer of the Latin American Club, and he was a frequent campus speaker on topics pertaining to Latin America and the Caribbean. Some talks included: “The Borderland” (a talk about Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and U.S. border relations from the perspective of Spanish language writers) in April 1924; a talk about traveling Puerto Rico in October 1924; and a talk on Puerto Rico’s sovereignty on November 1924. Although, by 1927, Mr. Soto had left campus for the final time to get married and to join the Lehigh University faculty where he remained until retirement.

Ms. Gloria Ramos, (B.S. Education, 1933), of Manati, might have been the first Puerto Rican Illini woman to graduate. Although not many other records have been identified yet.

Mr. Isidoro Aviles Jr. (B.S. Agriculture, 1942), of Vega Baja, and Ms. Inés María Hernández Santos, (M.D. 1949), of Guayana, might not have left many records behind either.

By the 1950s, of course there were more professional and graduate students too, including: Augosto Ortiz, (M.D. 1949); Jesus Santos-Martinez, (M.S. Pharmacology, 1949); Felipe Jimenez, (M.S. Civil Engineering, 1952); Feliciano Santos Jr., (M.D. 1951); Rodolfo Edwin Vilaro, (M.A. Spanish, 1954); Julio Marquez Cruz, (M.S. Civil Engineering, 1954); Alfonso Golderos, (M.S. Civil Engineering, 1954); Sarah Esther Torres-Peralta, (LLM, 1955; JSD, 1956); Dario Hernandez-Torres, (M.S. Civil Engineering, 1956); Ines Maria Ginsburg, (M.S. Library Science, 1957); Cesar Marquez Centeno, (M.S. Agronomy, 1957); Pedro Jimenez, (M.S. Civil Engineering, 1957); Edwin Toro-Goyco, (M.S. Civil Engineering, 1957); Angelina Martinez, (M.S. Library Science, 1957); Rogelio Bonilla-Torres, (M.S. Sanitary Engineering, 1957); Luis Desiderio Beltran-Hernandez, (M.S. Civil Engineering, 1959); Miguel Angel Riestra, (EdM, 1959; PhD, 1962); and William Vazquez Agrait, (M.S. Civil Engineering, 1959); to name a few.

During the 1960s, more undergraduates had enrolled too. Mr. Rafael Fernandez-Sein, (B.S. Electrical Engineering, 1963), of Rio Piedras, may not have left many records behind. While Ms. Milagros Agostini, (B.S. Music Education, 1965), of Ponce, was known to play the piano at Spanish Club events and perform dances at Latin American Club events too.

Ms. Flor de Maria Santiago, (A.B. French, 1965), of Ponce, and Mr. Francisco Alvarez, (B.S. Electrical Engineering, 1969), of San Juan, may not have left many records beyond either.

Puerto Rican Illini enrollment would continue beyond the 1960s to the present day, and the first Puerto Rican student organization would be founded during this time too.

Student Organizations

Puerto Rican Nights

As early as 1957, Puerto Rican Illini joined other student culture groups to host annual culture dinners as part of the Y.M.C.A.’s international supper committee. Puerto Rican Nights included food, music, and dancing. In the sample below, the 1957 Puerto Rican Night occurred near the Los Reyes Magos (“The Magi Kings” or “Three Kings Day) holiday, a Christian holiday, which included a cultural presentation and celebration of this winter holiday for all in attendance.

Puerto Rican Student Association

Since 196, the Puerto Rican Student Association has organized to inclusively support both Puerto Rican Illini and any other Illini or community members interested in Puerto Rican culture and history.

Are you a Puerto Rican Illini? Do you know someone who is? We’d like to hear from you! Please send us a message or leave a comment below. We want to include you and your story, as we celebrate the first 150 years of the University of Illinois.

Happy First 150 everyone!


[] As always, a special thank you to all students and staff whose tireless work for student life and publications (many of which are available at the University Archives) help preserve the memories of Illini everywhere.

[1] Meeting of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, June 9, 1938, page 830, Record Series 1/1/802.

[2] Meeting of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, May 26, 1939, page 319, Record Series 1/1/802.

[3] “William Albert Hawley”, The Semi-Centennial Alumni Record of the University of Illinois, Edited by Franklin W. Scott, page 131.

[4] “Oscar Lloyd Housel”, page 148.

[5] “John T. Scott”, page 235.

[6] “Samuel Matthew Thompson”, page 363.

[7] “Russell Smith Colton”, page 614.

[8] “Edgar Louis Hill”, page 3.

[9] “Frank Duane Gardner”, page 62.

[10] “Philip Garman”, page 768.

[11] “Forrest Ellwood Kempton”, page 782.

[12] “Lewis Archibald Robinson”, page 114.

[13] “Ethel Crum”, page 273.

[14] “Albert Alexander Van Petten”, page 296.

[15] “Harry Polkowski”, page 469.

[16] “Oscar Bryant Frazer”, page 310.

[17] “Rafael Arcangel Soto”, page 474.

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