NSP and UCSC celebrate milestone anniversaries for student civic engagement
At 40 and 20 years, programs look to the future
Shortly after Ted Gonder arrived on the University of Chicago campus in 2008, he and four other first-years decided to teach financial literacy to local youth. That decision led them to the University Community Service Center, which helped them establish a registered student organization. The UCSC also connected them to the Neighborhood Schools Program for advice on working with local schools.
“It was a pleasant surprise to find out what a robust organization the UCSC was and the support it offered to a freshman with a big dream,” said Gonder, AB ’12, who is now chief executive officer of Moneythink, a national organization that grew out of the namesake RSO. “The classroom discussions in the UChicago learning environment were profound, but the biggest learning for me was the development of Moneythink and getting involved with the community” through the UCSC and NSP.
The UCSC and the Neighborhood Schools Program together help more than 2,400 UChicago students get involved with the community each year through volunteering, community-based federal work-study jobs, tutoring, and support of local schools. During the 2016-17 academic year, they each launched a series of events aimed at students, alumni and community partners to celebrate milestone anniversaries—20 years for UCSC and 40 years for NSP. The Neighborhood Schools Program will continue to mark its anniversary with events through the end of 2017.
“The University of Chicago has a high level of student engagement that takes place in many forms across campus, and these are two premier initiatives,” said Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement and external affairs. “The Neighborhood Schools Program and the University Community Service Center exemplify UChicago’s rich history of engagement and offer tremendous opportunities to continue to support student civic engagement in the future.”
Making an impact
The UCSC, which itself began as a student group in 1992, was formalized in 1996 as a staffed unit within Campus and Student Life to help students explore the city of Chicago and apply what they learn in the classroom to drive social change through direct service, education and advocacy, and community-engaged scholarship. Former First Lady Michelle Obama served as its founding director from 1996 to 2001.
Now part of the Office of Civic Engagement, the UCSC runs 10 student civic engagement programs and advises more than 60 student organizations. Annually, more than 2,000 students participate in its programs and events in partnership with more than 250 organizations throughout 55 of the 77 community areas of Chicago. Immersive cohort programs include Summer Links, a 10-week social change education and paid internship program that matches 20 undergraduates with nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies, while exploring various social issues in Chicago neighborhoods for a 10-week paid internship, and Chicago Bound, a partnership with the Institute of Politics that brings 40 incoming first-year students to campus before orientation to learn about issues that affect local economic opportunity, drive violence, and define urban design and accessibility in a dozen different neighborhoods.
"One of the things we focus on is connecting students with communities and partners to build a more just Chicago and world,” said Amy Chan, UCSC director and associate dean of students in the University. "We make sure students are aware of various social issues as well as opportunities for them to take action and get involved.”
Community partners value UCSC’s approach. "From the inception of our relationship with UCSC four years ago, we've always felt like equal partners," said Monique Cook-Bey, Chief Program Officer at Chicago Youth Programs, where UChicago students tutor and mentor local at-risk youth in neighboring Washington Park. "They’re making an impact by coming into a community and being a part of it."
Local school partners say the same of the Neighborhood Schools Program. "The ongoing partnership between the University and our school for nearly 40 years has been invaluable," said Megan Thole, Principal at Ray Elementary School. "In many instances, individual NSP tutors support classrooms and students for multiple years, creating a connection that cannot be replicated for our students and parents."
The Neighborhood Schools Program was founded in 1976 with approximately 15 students working as classroom assistants in a few schools. It now connects 400 University students—as tutors, teaching assistants, administrative interns, pre-school specialists, and technology coordinators—with 50 sites across nine neighborhoods on the South Side. The roughly 30,000 hours UChicago students log each year in schools, afterschool programs, and government offices impacts more than 5,000 local students.
But NSP is about more than helping local schools. The benefits go both ways.
"As the program evolved it became clear it wasn't simply the University doing good in some schools. It was every bit as beneficial to the young people at the University who had the opportunity to see youngsters from different backgrounds and to get a sense of what their education was like," said Duel Richardson, AB'67, who was the director of the NSP from its founding until 2010. "This was every bit as important as the time they spent in their classrooms on campus developing their thinking skills."
Shaz Rasul, AB'97, SM'08, who took over the reins from Richardson in 2010, himself participated in the program as an undergraduate. "It's all very personal for me," said Rasul, who taught geometry at Ray Elementary in Hyde Park when he was in the College, and attended high school on the city’s South Side.
"Chicago is wildly segregated, both racially and economically, and a lot of students don't have real world experience beyond their immediate area," Rasul added. "I think this program is the essence of the concept of civic engagement. You're moving between communities, you become comfortable in both spaces, and you help others become comfortable in both spaces."
Looking to the future
At the same time, Rasul wants to take the program beyond its comfort zone. Both he and Chan have dedicated time over the past year to thinking about future versions of NSP and UCSC.
Rasul hopes to continue developing existing partnerships with nonprofits like Jumpstart, which supports early education, and GEAR UP, which focuses on increasing participation in postsecondary education among public school students.
He is also looking to expand a new student-led initiative called Maroon Tutor Match, through which parents in mid-South Side communities can request individual tutoring for their children for a maximum fee of $12 an hour. The program launched in fall 2016 and rapidly grew to more than 100 students helping 300 families. So far, participating youth have seen an increase of one full letter grade in tutored subjects.
The tutoring program was recent College alumna Akanksha Shah’s idea. She wanted to work with local youth, but existing tutoring options conflicted with her schedule. With Maroon Tutor Match, UChicago students are matched with kids based on need and common schedules. “Every experience can be tailored to the person,” said Shah, AB’17, adding that she’s “been surprised at how quickly it has grown.”
Rasul thinks Maroon Tutor Match can grow to 200 University students by 2019.
Likewise, Chan wants to double the size of both Summer Links and Chicago Bound, by 2020. And she wants to draw in more people to support a culture of civic engagement in multiple ways. The 20th anniversary activities included a “20 for 20” Community Engagement Challenge, in which UCSC invited students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community partners to pledge their time, effort, and financial resources. Options ranged from taking 20 seconds to share something on social media that promotes social justice to committing to serve on the board of community-based organization for 20 months.
UCSC and NSP are also seeking to tap into robust alumni networks for support and new ideas. This past June, separate events for program alumni attracted about 200 people each.
Gonder served on the host committee for the UCSC event. “The coolest thing for me was reconnecting with people who had been so helpful to me,” he said.
Teresa Bruce, an alumna of the Harris School of Public Policy, said her experience in the Neighborhood Schools Program gave her the confidence to change the world. "I had to show up because this program is so important," said Bruce, MPP'11, who teaches in the Baltimore public school system. "No matter where you go, you can make a difference."
Originally posted September 12, 2017.