campus volunteer efforts show promise of broadening undergraduate
perspectives and improving town-gown relations
Snow Photography by Matthew Gilson
remembers growing up on Chicago's South Side and not being aware
that she lived just 10 minutes away from one of the world's most
renowned academic institutions. When it came time to apply for college,
the University of Chicago was not on her list. She left the city
to pursue her bachelor's degree at Princeton and her law degree
Now 34, Obama
has since moved back to the South Side. In the fall of 1996, she
became an associate dean for student services at Chicago and the
first professional director of the University Community Service
Center. As the UCSC's director, Obama has accepted the charge of
developing a vibrant, sustainable community-service presence on
campus, one that will not only expose College students to different
points of view but also strengthen relations between the University
and residents in Hyde Park, other surrounding neighborhoods, and
throughout the city. She is determined to make sure that today's
South Siders, in particular, are more aware than she was of the
top university sitting in their own backyard.
"I have a personal
commitment here," says Obama, who lives in East Hyde Park with her
husband, state senator and Law School senior lecturer Barack Obama.
"This is my neighborhood, and the University is a resource. We're
missing opportunities to attract qualified applicants from our own
neighborhood. I'm here to get something going."
As Obama readily
acknowledges, the U of C often has been criticized, both fairly
and unfairly, for not taking a more active role in the revitalization
of its surrounding neighborhoods, and College students have typically
treated volunteer activities as peripheral to their academic pursuits.
But the appointment of Obama, her efforts at the UCSC, and the momentum
of student volunteer groups suggest that members of the University
community are placing a higher priority on serving their greater
community. Students are discovering the value of voluntarism-as
the school's apolitical voice in community affairs and as part of
a well-rounded liberal-arts education.
recognizes the need to be a good neighbor," says Obama. "There is
support for that mission. For what's the point of the University
being in this community if we don't find some way to connect with
Obama has been
busy cultivating such connections-between the University and community
groups, between students and local residents, and among students
themselves-since the newly reorganized UCSC opened its Reynolds
Club headquarters in January 1997. Before Obama's appointment, the
UCSC had existed since 1992 as a student-run organization. The creation
of Obama's position and the decision to fund UCSC programs and support
staff with an $80,000 annual budget followed the spring 1996 recommendations
of the Faculty-Student Committee on Volunteerism.
that it was important for there to be reciprocal relationships between
the University and neighboring communities and that the University
should support as rigorous a program as possible," says committee
chair Harold Richman, AM'61, PhD'69, the director of the Chapin
Hall Center for Children and the Hermon Dunlap Smith professor in
the School of Social Service Administration.
that "in no way does the UCSC claim to be the foundation of community
service on this campus," Obama notes that "students have been active
in the community since the 1950s and '60s, but they have never been
organized in a formal way." The changes, she says, help bring the
U of C more in line with peer institutions like Harvard, Brown,
and Yale, which all have long traditions of well-funded community-service
University's investment in the UCSC can also be attributed to general
changes in the national attitude toward voluntarism, says Obama.
She points to President Clinton's creation of the AmeriCorps domestic
service program; retired General Colin Powell's calls for more support
of volunteer activities from corporate America; and the emergence
of community-service mandates in some of the nation's top high schools,
including the U of C's own Laboratory Schools. "Prospective students
are looking for places where they can continue these activities
and be supported," Obama concludes.
Her own career
reflects these changing mores. Her early jobs had been predictable
enough: an associate post in a large corporate-law firm in Chicago,
followed by a stint in politics as assistant commissioner in the
city's department of planning and development. But nothing clicked,
she says, until she was asked to head the Chicago branch of the
Washington, D.C.-based Public Allies, which has been recognized
as a model program by the Clinton administration for its efforts
to place young adults in public-sector internships. At 27, Obama
accepted the responsibility of establishing the group's Chicago
presence and directing its $600,000 local budget, eventually increasing
that by $200,000 and bringing some 100 young people together with
nearly as many Chicago-area nonprofit groups during her three-year
Public Allies, Obama says her mission was to build a cohort of young
adults interested in social change. She brings a similar philosophy
of continuity and action to her job at the U of C: "We push the
students to plan and budget and be more accountable and professional.
We're not here to just support the do-gooder mentality. The work
isn't about the students; it's about the community they claim to
be serving, and it's about keeping promises. Many of these communities
have been devastated by the best of intentions."
of this year, the UCSC had linked more than 400 students to community-service
projects around the city, and the number of recognized student organizations
dedicated to community service had risen to 18 from 12 a year ago.
And for the first time, the university is providing direct, ongoing
financial support to student volunteer groups through the newly
established Community Service Fund.
The fund maintains
a yearly budget of $30,000 in student-activities fees set aside
by the student government. Of that, $20,000 is paid out annually
and the remaining $10,000 quarterly, according to the discretion
of a 13-member committee comprised of eight College and graduate
students, one student-government representative, and four Chicago-area
community-group leaders. To receive support, student organizations
must demonstrate an ongoing relationship with a community group,
such as a nonprofit agency or school. While the quarterly allocations
are available to any RSO that plans to sponsor a community-service
project, the annual allocations go only to RSOs whose primary purpose
is community service.
The UCSC also
organizes a quarterly Service Day, attracting dozens of students
for what Obama calls "a short-term, quick hit." At the beginning
of spring quarter, for example, about 20 students helped to make
repairs at the Apna Ghar shelter for South Asian women in Uptown,
while another 20 led activities for children at the Association
House of Chicago, which provides adult-literacy and foster-care
programs for predominantly Latino families in Bucktown. Earlier,
on Martin Luther King Day, students painted a nursery in a Woodlawn
day-care center, led recreational activities for children at the
Association House, and remodeled and repaired a transitional-living
facility for adult men on the South Side.
like these provide is opportunities for the school to develop diverse
contacts in the communities they serve," says Joel Martinez, the
Saturday program coordinator at Association House. "Children in
those areas could then aspire to go to the University and help diversify
its student body."
For those interested
in a deeper level of community involvement, the UCSC runs a public-sector
summer internship program called Summer Links. This year more than
100 College and graduate students applied for the 30 spots in the
program, which is modeled after Chicago Public Allies. Those selected
are now spending 10 weeks working for area nonprofit agencies such
as the Chicago Housing Authority, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and
the Jane Addams Hull House Association. Obama credits much of the
program's popularity to its $4,000 stipend, provided with support
from the College, the University's Office of Community Affairs,
and the federal work-study program.
"We want students
to see that community service is real work, not just the good stuff
that you do on the side," she says. "We lose student participation
in community service because the school's curriculum is tough and
many have to work to earn money. The stipend takes away the financial
constraints and makes community service a more competitive option."
initiatives include: a regularly updated database of volunteer opportunities
at more than 300 Chicago-area organizations; an Orientation Week
program that directs 1,000 incoming students to about 45 sites for
a day of volunteer work; student-volunteer and community-group workshops
on training and development issues led by UCSC staff and other U
of C experts; and resident-led tours of such urban enclaves as Pilsen,
Woodlawn, Kenwood, Uptown, and Little Village.
In the future,
Obama envisions moving the UCSC's operations into a house near campus
where students and community members could run into each other and
spark new ideas. A meeting room could host both University and community
events. "We want to be the hub for that kind of interaction," she
says. "We want to welcome the community onto this campus and make
our resources available. UCSC would be full of discussion and debate
and would be truly diverse."
At the same
time that the University has begun to formalize its approach to
community service, a core of dedicated student volunteer leaders
have gained momentum in their own efforts to promote campus voluntarism.
"With the new
center and the Summer Links program, it really seems like more and
more students are finding avenues to do meaningful work," observes
fourth-year sociology concentrator Jeremy Robins, who founded an
arts-education group. "They're enriching their college experience,
and, perhaps for the first time, envisioning such work as a viable
emphasize the need for the University to continue boosting its financial
support of student volunteer groups, to provide more assistance
with transportation concerns, to offer more Orientation Week programs
on the history of area neighborhoods and their residents' needs,
and to provide more direct action aimed at improving local economic
conditions. They also complain that they must compete for students'
energy and time with jobs and intense academics. Yet despite these
ongoing concerns, most student leaders say they are optimistic that
the administration's stepped-up attention to campus voluntarism
is helping to turn students' attention to how they can apply their
College students are enthusiastic about becoming involved in community
service," says fourth-year biochemistry and economics concentrator
Jennifer Wu, president of the U of C's chapter of the national service
fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. "You only have to look to the activities
of those service groups currently in existence and those constantly
being formed, as well as the establishment of the UCSC, for the
of the student volunteer leaders suggest that much of Obama's vision
is already being realized. Students like fourth-year psychology
concentrator Wendy Lichtenthal have forged connections beyond the
Midway. Lichtenthal formed the HIV/AIDS Awareness Program in the
fall of 1995 after being trained as a volunteer for an HIV/AIDS
support organization on the North Side and discovering there were
no similar groups on campus. Today, her group has about 30 active
members who organize an HIV/AIDS awareness week on campus, conduct
anonymous HIV testing for the campus community every quarter, and
lead educational seminars in local schools. The group has also developed
partnerships with community organizations, including the Howard
Brown Health Center on the North Side, Open Hand Chicago on the
South Side, and the Chicago Women's AIDS Project on the North Side.
Jeremy Robins, who formed U of C Strive in the fall of 1996 to share
University resources with a Chicago-area nonprofit agency called
Strive, which offers arts-education programs to disadvantaged children
in the Kenwood and Grand Boulevard neighborhoods. Not to mention
Jennifer Wu, whose Alpha Phi Omega chapter has, since its formation
last spring, sent 60-plus members of the multipurpose group out
to canvass low-income neighborhoods with fire-safety information
for the American Red Cross, to groom animals at a North Side shelter,
to paint apartments and hallways in local housing projects, and
to distribute food for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. And
fourth-year biology concentrator Jeff Yuan has recruited about 30
students to aid Cook County social workers serving children in foster
care through the U of C chapter of the Court Appointed Special Advocate
program, which he chartered in the fall of 1996.
mission is not just to educate young people in the field that they'll
work in for the rest of their lives, but also to educate them in
other fields, to make them more complete people," says Yuan. "Community
service is another form of education that helps make students more
to these newly formed student groups, other existing student volunteer
organizations have continued to move their missions forward. Headed
into its fifth year, Student Teachers expanded its program and sent
some 30 College students into three local schools each week during
the past academic year to tutor fourth- through eighth-graders.
Previously, the group had been serving only one school.
group, called Science and Math Achiever Teams, or SMArT, has aimed
since December 1995 to get local fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders
interested in science through what director Emily Drennan, a third-year
public-policy concentrator, calls "messy and interesting" projects
that show "science is not just a textbook, but a real-life adventure."
She says she has learned, too, from the experience: "I have gained
leadership and organizational skills that have been invaluable to
me as a student. I have also gotten out of Hyde Park and met some
really interesting people with stories to tell that I wouldn't hear
student groups continue to build on past years' efforts to support
local housing and economic development initiatives. For example,
on a Saturday morning in May, Students for Cooperation, which represents
student housing cooperatives, joined with the campus Habitat for
Humanity chapter and Woodlawn Development Associates, a nonprofit
community development organization, to help rehab a mixed-income
residential building a few blocks from campus on Kimbark Avenue.
Undergrads also address issues of hunger through the campus chapter
of Oxfam, and homelessness through the Giving Tree.
Catherine Potter, the codirector of Student Teachers, the benefits
of such activities for both the University and students themselves
are clear: "Our University provides an even richer educational experience
for its students if abundant connections to the community exist.
Learning entails not only independent study, but also engagement
with the people you live and interact with. Community volunteer
work keeps me connected to people."