During the University of Chicago’s annual Engage Chicago orientation event last Friday, more than 100 community partners welcomed more than 1,800 first-year students to their new city and talked to them about the spectrum of ways they can meaningfully engage with the South Side and Chicago as a whole during their years here. Organized by the University Community Service Center, the event brought local nonprofit and faith leaders, artists, small business owners, school principals, and elected officials together with small groups of students across UChicago’s campus, for discussions about local issues ranging from affordable housing and community safety to the virtues of deep-dish pizza.
Ahmad Jitan, director of organizing for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, emphasized for his small group session that getting off campus and exploring the city of Chicago is key. Students, he said, have been a big driver of increased urban civic engagement in higher education in recent years and thoughtful students can continue to create positive impact if they work together.
“Students … said, ‘I don’t want to spend my four years here just within the walls of a classroom or within the confines of the campus, I want to be civically engaged, I’m growing up and I have experiences or I’m reading and learning about things in the world, and I want my education to not only be theoretical but practical,’” Jitan told the group. “So, my hope is that, through offices that exist already and through your own imagination, you’re able to make your educational experience relevant, to have an impact, that your education isn’t just something that’s extractive from the city but that you’re here to build something as well.”
Anya Moseke, a transfer student from Tucson, Arizona, said she learned a lot about the city’s history and dynamics in the session with Jitan.
“I really appreciated the amount of energy from everyone who spoke,” Moseke said. “I thought everything that they touched on was really interesting.”
With a particular interest in using art for healing and social justice, Moseke says she is eager to get involved in organizations and projects her panelists mentioned, especially an annual effort led by My Block My Hood My City to decorate Washington Park and other nearby communities for the holidays.
“We want this to be a chance for our new students coming from all over the world—sometimes with preconceptions about Chicago—to hear from real Chicagoans about their new city,” Nick Currie, director of the University Community Service Center that leads the event within the Office of Civic Engagement (OCE), said. “These students are eager to experience all Chicago has to offer and hopefully contribute to our neighborhoods in positive ways during their years here, and this event, connecting them to such a diverse array of active community leaders and the issues that they work on, is a great place to start.”
In a session at the other end of Ida Noyes Hall, UChicago’s Vice President for Civic Engagement Christian Mitchell moderated a conversation that included 51st Street Business Association Executive Director Sandra Bivens, who encouraged students to make the most of their college years and dedicate time to their new community.
“Just like I tell my granddaughter: I want you to be a positive force in the future. Make up your mind about who you are, what you’re going to do, and then get out there and do the best that you can,” Bivens said. “You have to begin changing the world within your own little world. The changes you can make within your own block can spread out to the next block and the next block, that’s how you begin to make change.”
Incoming first-year Christian Herrera Tenorio, a North Carolina native, shared his passion for environmental justice with the group and asked Bivens and her fellow panelists how he can connect with local community organizations working on climate and migration issues.
“I knew a little bit about UChicago’s civic engagement programs, but I wasn’t really aware of how many connections that they have so it actually was very exciting just to hear these speakers talk about what my own potential future could look like, about how much I could be connected with Chicago—not only the school but the city as well,” he said. “I just got really excited, I’m just ready to get into it.”
Elsewhere, State Representatives Curtis Tarver and Kim duBuclet spoke to students about why exploring the city’s unique neighborhoods is vital and took questions on everything from the Chicago Bears to Chicago-style pizza (no, you generally can’t get deep dish by the slice, duBuclet explained, but you can get your own personal size).
Bivens and her fellow panelists also discussed some the biggest challenges Chicago is facing—including affordable housing issues, crime, and accommodating new migrant residents— and how their respective work is addressing those problems. UChicago students, Bivens said, have an opportunity to make a significant impact in those same areas or whatever areas they feel passionate about.
“We got a lot of work to do here, and you all can always be part of it,” she told the group. “We’ll find something for you to do, believe me.”