Incoming College students meet with local civic leaders to learn about Chicago and opportunities to thoughtfully engage at Engage Chicago orientation event

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More than 60 community partners connected with UChicago students as part of the annual University Community Service Center-led event

Andrew DeMuro didn’t know he’d fall in love with Chicago when he first moved to the city to teach a decade ago but, as he shared with a small group of UChicago College first-years during Friday’s Engage Chicago orientation event, the city—and the passionate people working to better it across all 77 neighborhoods—captured his heart.

“The opportunity that University of Chicago students have to make an impact on the South Side is significant because there is a wealth of resources here and to be able to connect resources to good work equals big impact,” DeMuro, regional director for the Pilsen-based musical mentoring nonprofit Guitars Over Guns, told the students. “And so being able to listen and learn from people who are doing this work, being able to connect your passion to real people who are doing real things, in this real, complex, challenging city might end up making Chicago your home as well.”

DeMuro was one of more than 60 community partners —including South Side principals, nonprofit directors, faith leaders, and others—to share their experiences and their work with small groups of incoming College students as part of the annual Engage Chicago event. Engage aims to help introduce students to the city of Chicago and the spectrum of ways they can meaningfully engage with and positively impact the South Side and the broader city during their years here. The event is an opportunity for students coming from all over the world, often with pre-existing perceptions of Chicago, to hear from real Chicagoans about their new city.

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Hosted by the University’s Community Service Center within the Office of Civic Engagement, Engage Chicago is a foundational element of the University’s annual Orientation Week for first-year undergraduate students. Following these conversations, more than 300 College students additionally took part in one of several service projects supporting nonprofit partners in the University’s neighboring communities. Projects included include park clean-up, organizing projects, tech support for seniors, and a variety of other support.

Dean of the College and Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor John Boyer has long advocated for incoming students to see the city as an extension of their classrooms during their UChicago years and says Engage is one of many opportunities students will have to plug in to their new surroundings, a message he reiterated in his welcome message to students earlier this week.

“I hope your explorations carry you in each direction as you engage our city and learn from our communities and from your peers. Please take every opportunity to engage with the people, the places, and institutions of this great city that we call home,” Boyer told students. “ … Over four years, I hope that this city is a regular partner in your learning, and you strive to be a citizen and participant in the life of the city.”

Whether it was hearing from a community partner who shares an area of civic interest or getting their hands dirty through a service project at a local community garden, students had several chances to heed Boyer’s advice and connect with new engagement pathways throughout the day, Nick Currie, director of the University Community Service Center, said.

“Engage Chicago is an opportunity for our incoming students to not only get a sense of their new city and the important work community partners are leading in every part of it but for them to get inspired to get out there, to build relationships in the areas they’re passionate about, and to join in that work on and off campus,” Currie said.

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Sadie Metcalfe, a first-year College student from Los Angeles, said participating in the event had her excited to get involved in the University’s neighboring communities and experience all Chicago has to offer, especially its food and culture scene.

“I think the media portrays a certain image of the South Side but the people that I’ve talked to so far have already destigmatized that for me and I feel a lot more comfortable,” Metcalfe said.

For Juan Reyes, a first-year from Idaho, the event was energizing in that panelists and moderators offered guidance on where to start if students want to get involved in the community during their UChicago years.

“The event gave me a really creative outlet to start engaging with this new community that I’ll soon be able to call my home. Back where I’m from, I did a lot of community service so to be able to bring that little part of home here is really helping me,” Reyes, who hopes to work with children on the South Side through the Neighborhood Schools Program’s tutoring or other UChicago programs, said. “Part of the reason I wanted to come here is because I want to find a way to help, and I know that a University with vast resources like this one can give me what I need to go out into my community and help.”

In Reyes’ Engage session, community partner Sonia Wang, executive director of Bronzeville-based nonprofit new Community Outreach, reflected on her own time participating in the Neighborhood Schools Program during her years as a UChicago undergraduate and how the meaningful relationships she built with South Side students and schools shaped her career path and led to her current role.

“Chicago to me is the perfect juxtaposition of grittiness and soft beauty at the same time and often times we miss it because we’re looking at what’s obvious and not really looking at its subtleties,” Wang told her group. “When you do, you see the beauty of a lot of things, whether it’s the buildings, the neighborhoods, the greenery, the people, the music, there’s so much that comes from it but you have to be willing to see it. So, my hope is that as you embark on your journey here that you take on that posture of being willing to see the beauty amidst all that might be on the surface level.”

Community partner Gloria Smith, executive director of Bronzeville-based educational and economic empowerment nonprofit The Black Star Project, shared similarly optimistic words of encouragement:

“There are a lot of challenges. There are a lot of barriers. But you know, I really want to talk about hope. We have some amazing, bright young people. It's very important that we pour everything into you all because you all are going to be the ones who are going to make the difference in this community and in the world. So, I just want to get you all ready. I want to just light a fire under all of you to get involved.”

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