Starting with this year's group of incoming undergraduates, the University of Chicago is giving first-year students an expanded introduction to Chicago's diverse communities and to service opportunities at many of the city's nonprofit organizations.
Called “Chicago Bound,” the new pilot program took place the week before Orientation Week, complementing the traditional day of service that is already built into O-Week activities. It built on that tradition to let new students experience an even greater slice of civic engagement in Chicago.
Twenty students who joined Chicago Bound traveled by bus and train to neighborhood food pantries, community centers and after-school programs. They volunteered their time and met with numerous community leaders, including six UChicago alumni, in the hopes of forming relationships within the city that will last throughout their four years in the College.
“We hope they can become ambassadors to their peers for serving and engaging with people outside of the University campus,” said Amy Chan, director of the University Community Service Center, which organized the weeklong program.
During the course of the week, the group worked in Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Lakeview and Woodlawn, four historic neighborhoods with rich cultures and distinct social needs. They visited a LGBTQ youth resource center in Lakeview, for example. In Pilsen, they taught spelling and reading to children, made and delivered meals to the homeless, and helped register people to vote. In Humboldt Park, they visited the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and a clinic for people living with HIV/AIDS.
“Joining this program is one of the best decisions I’ve made,” said Robin Ye, incoming first-year from Portland, Ore. “I have fallen in love with Chicago even more since I’ve seen the sense of family and community among the people here,” he said.
Ye spent his afternoon at the Lakeview Pantry cleaning four refrigerators and freezers. They normally hold donated food before it gets distributed to people in need. He mopped up spills and scrubbed vents as a new truckload of groceries from a local Trader Joe’s supermarket came in. It was difficult work, but Ye said he was grateful for the chance to do it.
Erin Stephens, the director of volunteers for the Lakeview Pantry, was grateful for the UChicago students’ volunteerism. “The work they did would have taken one person hours to do, or it may not have gotten done at all,” she said. “Volunteer groups like this have a huge impact on our operation.”
As the students wrapped up their visit, she reminded them that the door was always open for them to come back to visit or volunteer, especially with the holidays approaching.
Reflecting on the seven-day program experience, first-year B.J. Barker from Meridian, Idaho, said, "Chicago Bound introduced me to a whole new way of viewing community service. Through partnering with neighborhood organizations that focus on local issues, I saw the lifeblood of social change in Chicago: hopeful and engaged citizens."
The University will invite all the first-year students to get a taste of community service on Saturday, Sept. 29, during the Engage Chicago Through Service events. With turnout to Engage Chicago Through Service growing each year, the University Community Service Center expects a record number of participants. They’ve arranged with 40 different community-based and faith-based organizations throughout the South and West sides of Chicago to accommodate more than 600 student volunteers.
Incoming first-year students who are interested in participating in the Engage Chicago Through Service event can register at my.uchicago.edu.