Student groups dedicated to community service build South Side connections

brooke davis with tech seniors
Community Service Registered Student Organizations or CSRSOs contribute to and learn from a wide array of campus neighbors with support from the University Community Service Center

On a recent Friday afternoon, Brooke Davis and a team of her fellow UChicago students sat down with a group of local older adults to talk about cellphone settings. Davis, a fourth year in the College studying psychology and linguistics, spoke slowly for any hard-of-hearing participants as she went over how to change colors and display font sizes on iPhones or tablets. The group then broke into pairs so the UChicago students could answer the individuals’ specific questions. As co-president of Tech-Savvy Friends, Davis leads such sessions at Hyde Park’s Augustana Lutheran Church every other week in partnership with Chicago Hyde Park Village (CHPV), a nonprofit support network for local older adults.

Technology can seem intuitive to younger generations who have grown up with it, but for many of the people the Tech-Savvy Friends work with, it’s often not. Davis has seen older attendees light up when a concept like how to text a photo to their grandchild clicks and hopes her group’s work continues to make their lives easier. Lucas Livingston, CHPV’s executive director, says members consistently point to Tech-Savvy Friends’ sessions as invaluable, whether the students are covering topics like online grocery delivery, cloud storage systems, social media, or fraud protection, or just helping them send an email or pay an online bill.

And the learning goes both ways.

“I’ve really enjoyed speaking to those community members who have been in Hyde Park or Kenwood or Woodlawn for decades, who grew up here 60 years ago, and just hearing about how the community has changed,” Davis, who is originally from St. Louis, says. “I don’t want to just live here. I want this to be my home—I want it to be a place where I feel connected to the people around me, so I think it’s really important for me to understand that history.”

uchicago students with tech help
UChicago students help local seniors through Tech-Savvy Friends, in partnership with Chicago Hyde Park Village.

Like the more than 40 other active community service-focused Registered Student Organizations (CSRSOs) at UChicago, Tech-Savvy Friends offers undergraduate and graduate students an opportunity to connect with and support residents and community organizations beyond campus. 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, connect with community partners, and navigate any obstacles throughout the school year.

“CSRSOs give students and community organizations the chance to work together as partners and collaborate in mutually beneficial ways,” UCSC Director Nick Currie says. “Students get the chance to develop their skills around peer leadership and community engagement, partners get volunteer support for their programs. And when the relationships work well, all kinds of new and interesting projects can emerge from those collaborations. When students with good ideas for partnerships and projects connect with the UCSC, they gain access to the University’s network of community partners and receive project development support to scale, fund, launch, and manage their projects.”

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.”

Filling the Gaps

On Wednesday nights in Englewood, another CSRSO is making a positive impact serving a different population: women and children facing homelessness. UChicago students in the Maria Shelter Resource Group provide childcare and tutoring while their mothers attend clinics and sessions offered by students from UChicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine.   

Ivana del Valle, a third-year biology major, was eager to get involved in the South Side community when pandemic restrictions started to ease. Each week, del Valle and other students in the group come prepared with toys and games for the young residents and provide homework help for the older kids.

“The kids remember your name and tell you about what they did at school that day and it’s just nice to build those bonds,” del Valle says. “I think it’s really helpful for them to see people they can interact with and just have fun and talk to about whatever they want but they know that we’re there for them.”

del valle
UChicago student Ivana del Valle says volunteering in the Maria Shelter Resource Group is a good learning experience because she wants to work in the medical field.

By caring for the children, the group serves the shelter’s mothers as well.

“I think the moms really depend on us coming there,” third-year political science and Latin studies major and group president Brenda Garcia says. “It’s really a break for them every week to be able to attend to their needs. Sometimes the moms will come back after a shower and they’ll be like, ‘I really needed that, I needed that time for myself.’”

The group worked with Currie and the team at the University Community Service Center to rebuild its volunteer base following COVID closures, secure needed funding, and coordinate transportation to and from the shelter, as well as iron out other logistics.

“We could not get done the kinds of things that the women need medically or behaviorally without this critical support,” Gwen Fowler, director of program services at the shelter, says. “There is little to none of those personalized services that occur within this community, so it is filling a huge gap in Englewood.”

nick currie del valle
UCSC Director Nick Currie meets with UChicago student Ivana del valle

Community Connection

For Davis, del Valle, and Garcia, the opportunity to engage with the broader Chicago community through their CSRSO work has been uniquely rewarding way to enrich their UChicago years.

“I think it’s important for UChicago itself—we’re representing UChicago as an institution, and it’s important for UChicago to show that we are not that disconnected from the communities,” Garcia says. “We want to provide services. We want to be there for our neighbors.”

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