For college students like Brooke Davis, keeping up with the latest technology can feel intuitive. But Davis, who serves as co-president of UChicago’s Tech-Savvy Friends community service group, knows that that’s often not the case for local seniors.
“I know that this icon means share and this one means settings and seniors don’t know that, they haven’t been surrounded by that their entire lives,” Davis, a fourth year in the College, says. “And I think it also gets to the point where it can be intimidating for them to ask for help because it seems like something that is so easy for everyone else.”
Every other Friday, Davis and her group lead technology sessions at Hyde Park’s Augustana Lutheran Church in partnership with Chicago Hyde Park Village (CHPV), a nonprofit support network for older adults in the neighborhood. The UChicago students cover topics spanning from cloud storage systems to Facebook to online banking and fraud protection to how to text a photo to a grandchild, then break into pairs to answer seniors’ specific questions. Other times throughout the month, Davis and others make themselves available for drop-in sessions or one-on-one assistance on a senior’s particular project.
“I’ve found when I show them they don’t need to be embarrassed—this is confusing and that’s why I’m here—they have so much gratitude for that, and I get excited when they get excited about what they’re learning,” Davis says.
Like the more than 40 other active community service-focused Registered Student Organizations (CSRSOs) at UChicago, Tech-Savvy Friends offers undergraduate and graduate students like Davis an opportunity to regularly connect with and support residents and partner organizations beyond campus. Though Tech-Savvy Friends’ focus is on seniors and technology needs, other CSRSOs dedicate their efforts toward after-school tutoring, fighting food insecurity, environmental advocacy, writing assistance, and more. The groups work closely with the University’s Community Service Center (UCSC), within the Office of Civic Engagement, to establish their missions, recruit members, and navigate any obstacles throughout the school year.
Davis and her team have looked to UCSC for communications, recruitment, and financial guidance, among other support, Davis says: “It’s been really helpful to just have someone in our corner and know that if we make managerial decisions on behalf of the club or if I need to put out some kind of fire, I have someone to consult and back me up.”
Davis, who grew up in St. Louis, says joining Tech-Savvy Friends has allowed her to engage with the University’s neighboring communities on multiple meaningful levels. The older adults the group serves have often lived in Hyde Park, Kenwood, or Woodlawn for decades, Davis says, and offer unique first-person insight on the changing dynamics of the area and city as a whole, as well as the University itself. “Connecting with the community also connects me back to my university in a way,” Davis says, recalling conversations she’s had with seniors who once studied similar subjects, worked on campus, or otherwise interacted with UChicago. Throughout the early days of the pandemic, Tech-Savvy Friends was also one of only a few CSRSOs that was able to continue operating by shifting their support to a virtual format, thereby maintaining an important source of social connection for CHPV’s older members and Tech-Savvy Friends younger members alike.
“Beyond the value of technology instruction for our older community members, the program has a very positive intergenerational impact,” CHPV Executive Director Lucas Livingston says. “It’s a friendly space where the students and older participants learn from each other, share stories, and get a better understanding of the lived experience of different generations.”
The group’s work and partnerships with CHPV and UCSC have led to other opportunities as well. Last year, Davis and a handful of others expanded their support to assist visitors to the Chicago Public Library at the library’s request. Unlike CHPV members who often look to Tech-Savvy Friends to better understand their personal devices or get a crash course in a particular platform or concept, library visitors typically needed help navigating the library’s hardware to access resources, fill out forms, or otherwise address a particular timely issue.
Working with both populations, Davis says, has been rewarding because the positive impact is often immediate. One older woman Davis was helping at the library, for instance, was trying to write up a Word document and was manually hitting enter after every line, not realizing the cursor would move to the next line automatically, Davis recalls. “Her mind was blown because she had learned how to type on a typewriter,” Davis says. “And I just remember finding that to be so interesting because I was like, man, nobody has ever sat down with her and explained this is how you use this.” Even those seemingly little breakthroughs can feel significant, she says.
“It’s something so tangible that is so exciting for them, that’s going to make their life better,” Davis says. “It just feels like such a mutually beneficial thing—I always leave a tech session feeling really good about what I’ve done because I genuinely feel like I’ve made a difference.”