A dozen incoming University of Chicago College students dipped roller brushes into bright red, orange, and gray paint, applying a fresh coat to the Jazz Fence that surrounds the Great Migration Community Garden, adjacent to Gallery Guichard in Bronzeville.
They were among the more than 1,700 new students who spent a day during Orientation Week doing service projects at more than 80 sites in 12 neighborhoods throughout the South and West Sides. The class of 2023 is the first where full participation has been required, creating a record number of students engaging in environmental projects, working with advocacy groups, and supporting local K-12 schools.
“Community engagement is an important component of undergraduate education at the University of Chicago,” said Jay Ellison, Dean of Students in the College. “From our Chicago Studies program to community outreach through the Office of Civic Engagement, College students learn from and contribute to organizations and initiatives making a meaningful impact in Chicago’s neighborhoods, schools, and communities.”
The students began the day with City Life talks, which served as a primer on thinking of oneself in relation to a larger community, and the different ways to engage the city broadly and local neighborhoods specifically. After dispersing to service sites, they received brief introductions to the local histories by community partners.
Andre Guichard, co-owner of the gallery, spoke of the significance of Bronzeville. “This space, this community, is sacred ground,” he said. “When the Great Migration happened, over a million African Americans migrated to the North for better opportunities. But because of redlining, this was one of the only neighborhoods we could stay in.”
Incoming student Harshita Ramakrishnan immediately made the connection.
“When I was a freshman in high school, our first debate resolution was about reparations for African Americans. We researched redlining, but I had never personally been in a community directly affected by it,” she said. “But now I see this, and I see what they’ve done here at the gallery and the community garden. You can see how they’ve been affected by it, but they’ve managed to create something beautiful and preserve their culture.”
The Day of Service has been a vehicle to help create a new narrative of the South Side for students, most of whom are from outside Chicago, for over 20 years. In 1996, Michelle Obama helped found the University Community Service Center (UCSC), which is a primary touchpoint for students’ civic education that is now led by Kafi Moragne-Patterson, Director of Student Civic Education at the Office of Civic Engagement (OCE).
“We hope today will be a springboard for students’ continued civic action,” said Shaz Rasul, Executive Director of Student Civic Engagement at OCE. “Through the Office of Civic Engagement’s programs, we can connect interested students with ongoing opportunities to work with community partners and make a positive impact in the world.”
By shaping their first experiences of Hyde Park and its neighboring communities, the UCSC inspires ongoing connection with the organizations serving those communities, and helps students become not just stronger academics, but better citizens.
“I’m so glad to see students encouraged to get out of the ivory tower and to get a better understanding of Chicago neighborhoods and the culture and rhythm of these communities,” said Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward Alderman. “They’re taking the curiosity of the classroom and applying it to the city.”
By Megan Doherty