Asian-Indian Community Collaboration investing in a STEM-focused future for Peoria
Peoria may need to consider adding more STEM-related employment opportunities to combat its drop in population. At least, that’s what the Asian Indian Community Collaboration of Peoria is hoping to see in the city’s future.
The Asian Indian Community Collaboration of Peoria, or AICCP for short, is a group of Asian-Indian Peorians who are committed to drawing more people to Peoria and lifting up current residents’ talents through philanthropy.
Sri Vuppuluri is an officer for the AICCP, and he has lived in Peoria for roughly 40 years since moving from India. Vuppuluri worked for Caterpillar and had his own information technology consulting business before retiring.
Vuppuluri said AICCP was created as an "umbrella organization" in 2019 after many Peoria-area Asian Indian community members came together to focus on their philanthropic and volunteer efforts.
“We are not native Peorians to begin with, but we came here, and we like the place. We like what we saw. We have done well, and we would like to see Peoria do well too,” Vuppuluri said.
Vuppuluri said AICCP supports Easter Seals, St. Jude, the Center for the Prevention of Blindness, the Center for Prevention of Abuse and more.
“The city is going through a lot of crises, a lot of challenges with poverty, with the food shortages, with lack of support for important institutions. We are trying to fill in the gaps where we can,” Vuppuluri said.
Kamlesh Macwan is another AICCP officer who has lived in Peoria for 35 years. Macwan is a neonatologist at OSF St. Francis.
Macwan said, “Now, Caterpillar is leaving the town, but we can’t really sit on that and say ‘well, this is the end of Peoria,’ which it’s probably not. So, we have many other things to kind of work on. So, we look at what is called public service.”
Macwan said the AICCP has partnered with Peoria city hall, the mayor and the Economic Development Council to boost AICCP’s goals for Peoria.
Macwan said, “Philanthropy and the public service all goes together. I think that one has to compliment the other, and the same way, it goes both ways. So, when we started putting things together, we realized our community is doing a lot of work with a lot of different areas: education, providing food, shelters, clothing, those kind of things.”
“Philanthropy and the public service all goes together. I think that one has to compliment the other, and the same way, it goes both ways. So, when we started putting things together, we realized our community is doing a lot of work with a lot of different areas: education, providing food, shelters, clothing, those kind of things.”Kamlesh Macwan, AICCP officer
Both Vuppuluri and Macwan said each person in the organization brings their own unique career interests and areas of expertise to the table to improve Peoria’s future.
Vuppuluri said, “90 to 95% of our community has at least a graduate degree. I would say that maybe 30 to 40% would probably have post-graduate qualifications like Ph.Ds. or M.D.s or other qualifications. So, we are a fairly literate, academically fairly advanced community. So, we have a pool of talent of various kinds: engineering, design, technology. So, we have a lot of brain power that can be put to good use for the city.”
Vuppuluri said the focus of AICCP is not so much what they're doing today, but the potential for Peoria to become something bigger in the future.
“We see potential for growth, for improvement, for a lot of good things. So, Peoria is not the pits that people thought it would be after Caterpillar lifted out. So, we have a very positive outlook on what can happen over here. We see the population, we see the commitment, we see the resources. We have a good appreciation of what we have, and this is also our home,” Vuppuluri said.
Peoria’s population is declining at a rate of -0.16% each year according to World Population Review. From 2010 to 2020, it went down by -0.33%.
Vuppuluri said Peoria needs community-wide revitalization, but that doesn’t just mean investing money into the city to build new
“It’s a change in the people’s attitudes and their perceptions, and you make them understand, make them realize, that there is more out there than be bogged down with the problems that we see every day. Yes, we have crime,” Vuppuluri said. “Yes, we have deprivation. Yes, we have problems. There is poverty. There is a lot of stuff going on, but those are not endemic to Peoria.”
Since 2019, the AICCP has raised $100,000 for the Dining Room at Ronald McDonald House, raised $5.5 million for EasterSeals, and supported Crittenton Center Crisis Nursery, among other philanthropic efforts.
Medicine and STEM-related change
AICCP believes that increasing opportunities in Biotechnology, medicine, technical talent, science and IT will create a stronger future for Peoria.
“STEM education is a critical aspect of today’s workforce. Everyone needs to have STEM skills. So, we are trying to build that by mentoring students, by coaching them, by giving them ideas on how to do math. We do not believe in saying that math is difficult. That is not the way to do it. We like to encourage people. We want to teach them, coach them that ‘this is how you do it, and these are the vital skills that we need to bring fresh air into our communities,’” Vuppuluri said.
Macwan said with Peoria’s growing medical community through OSF HealthCare and UnityPoint Health Methodist, he’s hopeful that AICCP can partner with the City of Peoria to create a Biotech Hub.
Macwan said he also hopes to see the Illinois Biotech industry partner with Peoria area medical facilities and universities to offer revamped STEM-based curriculums and draw in more young adults.
Vuppuluri said he sees a bright future for psychiatric and behavioral health advancements and for the Cancer Center as a major Hub in Illinois.
“If we build the right infrastructure, it is possible that companies may want to invest in Peoria and start doing some start up work so that they can profit from all the resources and all the expertise that the community has,” Vuppuluri said.
Both Vuppuluri and Macwan said companies like VirtuSense and Pringles Robotics are examples of how STEM-related investments will draw more people to Peoria. Both companies use robotics and artificial intelligence to improve medical practices.
AICCP also invests in educational opportunities for Peoria-area youth.
The Project Phoenix initiative reports that the 61605 area code in Peoria faces an unemployment rate of 44.9% and a poverty rate of 44.1%.
Macwan said education is the reason why they are here, and the AICCP's 'Education to Employment' program serves to give Peoria-area high school students exposure to different careers while giving them opportunities to learn on the field.
Macwan helps lead the Education to Employment program. He said students interested in technology, medical technology, becoming an EMT, phlebotomy and more can be exposed to these careers through this program.
“Education is not the end of it. Education has to lead to the employment,” Macwan said.
The goal is to help youth acquire job skills and expand their educational opportunities to help inspire a diverse set of future professionals in Peoria.
AICCP has worked with more than 5,000 students in STEM related classes and programs and has tutored students as young as grade school all the way to University of Illinois College of Medicine students. AICCP has also organized a discounted book fair and an EMT training experience for kids in Peoria Elite program, to name some of AICCP’s efforts.
Macwan said for high school students interested in a technology-focused career, Illinois Central College's plans to establish an IT workforce training program in the Peoria area may be the answer. ICC will receive more than $14.6 million in funding for this program.
Vuppuluri said Peoria has come a long way…. but it’s time for Peoria to focus more on how the medical community can improve economic opportunities and the qualities of life for Peorians.
“…instead of focusing on problems, look ahead and see the potential. What can Peoria be? It is not that critical as to what is happening today. We are bogged down in the present at the cost of the future. The future is a different kind of future,” Vuppuluri said.
Vuppuluri said Peoria’s future has to be technology driven, meaning fiberoptics, strengthening education, and focusing on technology-based medical practices.
“Suppose we have a thousand engineers who are really good in IT or any other fields sitting in Peoria. Would there be any company that would look to anywhere else to set up an office? They would all run to Peoria pretty much like Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley was a success because at one point, they had a huge amount of talent. Why can’t that talent take root in Peoria?” Vuppuluri said.
“I mean there is no reason all the kids who go to schools over here, who go to colleges over here, where will they go when they’re finished? I mean they will probably leave town and go somewhere else. Why? Because we are not able to give them employment. What do we do to retain all that talent and make Peoria a better place?”Sri Vuppuluri, AICCP officer
Vuppuluri said this will only happen if there is community wide support for Peoria’s youth and professionals in medical or technology-related professionals.
“I mean there is no reason all the kids who go to schools over here, who go to colleges over here, where will they go when they’re finished? I mean they will probably leave town and go somewhere else. Why? Because we are not able to give them employment. What do we do to retain all that talent and make Peoria a better place?” Vuppuluri said.
Vuppuluri said this all begins with people being more open to technology and being willing to give back to the community of Peoria now for a better future.