UChicago first-year students meet with and learn from community leaders

Engage Chicago orientation event encourages first-year students to embrace the city

In a classroom full of first-year University of Chicago students last month, local nonprofit leader Charles Walton laughed as he recounted all the things that Chicago-set TV dramas get wrong about his hometown. Characters will refer to going west down a street that runs north and south, for instance, and action only unfolds in one concentrated area.

“Chicago’s bigger than that,” Walton, the executive director of mentoring program 100 Black Men of Chicago, told the group. “Chicago’s more exciting than that. To fully embrace Chicago, you’re going to have to get out and explore it.”

Walton was one of nearly 100 community leaders who met with small groups of incoming students on Sept. 24 as part of the University’s annual Engage Chicago Orientation Week event. Hosted by the University’s Community Service Center within the Office of Civic Engagement, the daylong series of workshops and activities aimed to help introduce the students to Chicago and the spectrum of ways they can meaningfully engage with and positively impact the South Side and the broader city during their time at the University.

For the third year, all incoming College students—more than 2,200 this year—were asked to participate. Participating community partners included South Side elected officials, arts and culture advocates, local school principals, nonprofit directors, small business owners, community organizers, and other civic and faith leaders.

“For many students, the University’s urban environment was part of the attraction that led them to select the College. Connecting with community leaders through events like Engage Chicago is just one way the University opens pathways and dialogue between the city and our students, no matter what particular academic or personal passions they hold,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “We see the city of Chicago, our neighboring communities on the South Side, and civic leaders as essential partners in our students’ development as scholars and as citizens.”

The groups of 30 to 40 new UChicago students spent their morning and early afternoon taking part in interactive engagement workshops, including one about active listening designed by the Center for Identity + Inclusion and another that aimed to put the University’s unique approach to civic engagement in context and offer a primer in engaging thoughtfully. Community partners like Walton then met with students to speak to their on-the-ground work, their neighborhoods, the challenges they’re addressing first-hand, the opportunities they see for the city, and how students can engage and learn more during their time in Chicago.

Following these conversations, more than 300 UChicago students additionally took part in one of 14 service projects supporting nonprofit organizations in the University’s neighboring communities. Projects included landscaping work, building picnic tables, painting, organizing educational materials, offering technological assistance to local seniors, park clean-up and a variety of other support. The projects were the first of many opportunities the students will have throughout their UChicago years to engage with the University’s broad network of longstanding community-based partners.

Virginia Wright, a first-year student who grew up on a farm in rural Kansas said she found the day’s activities to be “incredibly eye-opening.”

“I’m from such a small community, I never really knew that stuff like this even goes on and I’m really excited to start being able to give back to this community that’s already welcomed me and allowed me to go to college,” she said.

Wright was among the students in Walton’s Engage session and also heard about pathways for engaging with local K-12 schools from William H. Ray Elementary Local School Council Representative Katie Gruber. Wright volunteered with after school programs for underprivileged children in Kansas and said the workshops and exchange with community leaders during the Engage event made her eager to get involved with similar tutoring or mentoring programs on the South Side.

“At UChicago, we encourage our students to think of the city as an extension of their campus and we hope ‘Engage’ gave them, most of whom aren’t originally from here, an opportunity to understand a few of the ways that Chicagoans are working to strengthen their communities,” Shaz Rasul, executive director of Education Partnerships and the interim director of the University Community Service Center, said. “As an urban research institution, the University is in a unique position to connect our students to meaningful ways to learn from, thoughtfully engage with, and contribute to their new city and we’re excited that so many incoming students got a chance to take that first step through this event.”

UChicago students engaging with the community is beneficial for both the students and the community, Hyde Park community organizer and participating speaker Bennie Currie said—students have a lot to learn from the community but also a lot to offer.

"When you’re in college, that’s when you really figure out what you’re going to do in your life and I think understanding the dynamics of a community and what it has to offer and how it fits in with everything else in Chicago can help you figure out what you want to do in life,” said Currie, a financial planner who leads local Halloween safety advocacy group CollaBooration and serves on the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, in addition to several other community roles. “We all are connected whether we know it or not and there are a lot of people in our community with all kinds of life experiences. The only way you’re going to learn about those connections and experiences is to get involved.”

—This story was first published by the Office of Civic Engagement.