Chicago Intensive Reflection

By Jorie Dybcio  North Park claims that “we engage Chicago as our dynamic place of learning and service; Chicago is our classroom and all Chicagoans are our teachers.” While this prevails as true for some students who have the chance to venture into Chicago through programs such as Honors Congress, there is still a sum of students who have yet to even experience an “L” ride. Opportunities to be involved in the city, especially in ways concerning justice—both for humanity and the environment— tend to be insufficiently provided at North Park.

Richard Khong and Dr. Rachelle Ankney have a plan to fix the lack of integration through a bottomless love of food and vision for social change. From that vision came the Chicago Intensive program (CI). The purpose of the program is to engage students through a combination of an internships at a non-profit organization, classes exploring Chicago, and an integration session to experience our studies first-hand.

Dr. Ankney claims: “We take pride in combining our students' learning curriculum with engaging sessions. We could send students into soup kitchens and they will leave thinking: 'I am so lucky.' But after they don’t have the resources for a broader understanding of society. Students tend to do these service opportunities as if they are checking a box."

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For the 14 students who are currently involved in the CI, it has accomplished just that. Students have been placed in internships at several different non-profit organizations around Chicago: Lawndale Christian Legal Center, Sarah’s Circle, Communities United, Breakthrough Ministries and more.

Personally, my placement at Sarah’s Circle has helped me develop a true sense of what service means. It is more than simply giving time and energy—it becomes something that shapes you and your intersectional view of the world. Our internships have allowed each of us to see a side of Chicago that is usually only discussed in the traditional classroom setting.  Emily Farwell, who is interning at Centro Autonomo claims that her experience “has allowed me to get out of my own mind and life in so many ways.” To see many of these issues first-hand has truly changed us and the lens through which we look at the world.

Universities tend to create a bubble on their campus—talking about deeper issues within the classroom but then leaving students to experience those issues on their own time, rarely presenting students with the opportunity to engage. The classwork within the CI is distinctively integrable. As a cohort we are together for nine hours every Tuesday and Thursday, and all day Wednesday. The time spent with one another makes it easier for students to dissect complicated issues and share honest opinions through debates and conversation. This has transcended into friendships we were not expecting. We, of course, imagined getting close to one another with such an experience, but we didn't expect the sort of community that was formed on the first encounter.

While the Chicago Intensive has been life changing for all it’s cohort this past semester, it is important to consider the impact it has on North Park’s campus as a whole.

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This program sets a great model for what our small university could look like in a few years. Or how any university in an urban setting should look like. Khong claims "our world will be 70% urban by 2050." Our world is vastly developing and urban communities are growing. This advancement makes it essential to understand the repercussions of city expansion in order to prevent damage to the world around us: for both nature and humanity. Integrating concepts of justice and environmental sustainability inside and outside the classroom grants students the ability to understand their vastly changing world and their role within that system.

This past semester of the CI, we took a week long course solely on environmental science encompassing urban living. Incorporating that awareness was essential to being able to understand that God has given us nature to utilize, not have dominion over. When we speak about urban development we hardly ever consider the impact we have on natural beauty.

Beyond a comprehension of the balance between nature and city, it is also important to find an appreciation for beauty not made by human hands, so that urban development doesn’t entirely taint it. Through integrative sessions, students are able to explore the preserved parts of the city such as conservatories and numerous parks. Being given this opportunity by the university is essential to understanding our role in keeping a natural balance between development and destruction.

The CI also sets an example of how the classroom should engage discussion on who we are as humans, and how city life contributes to the way we make sense of ourselves and the world. Living in a city with such a great amount of violence that it has been coined “Chi-raq” by popular culture, we have a moral authority to take action. The CI incorporated a number of justice issues into our learning and integrative sessions, including: gentrification, segregation, racism, sexism, xenophobia, political unrest and more.

The CI has opened the cohorts' eyes to these issues and sparked a passion to do something about it. Nico Canete for example is planning on furthering the work he currently is doing for his internship with Jedidiah BrownWithout the opportunities to become more engaged with justice issues throughout Chicago, Canete wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get involved with the inequalities and violence happening on the south side.

Canete is a perfect example of the vision the CI has for the future. Khong plans on helping the program grow into a major-orientated program offered to every North Park student. For example, criminal justice majors will have classes based around Chicago, as well as a general urban setting. They will then have internships with organizations working on confronting justice issues around the city in addition to an integrative session incorporating all they’ve learned within the classroom and their internship.

North Park’s desire to expand the idea of the CI is evident with their intended incorporation of the Engage schedule for next semester. The schedule will leave more room for classes to go into the city to Chicago beyond the bean, giving students a precious appreciation of Chicago, and a chance to call themselves a “real” Chicagoan. But the question prevails as to whether or not this schedule will cpnflict with the intentions of the Chicago Intensive, or prohibit its expansion of the program.

The question of whether or not the Engage schedule will spark conversation about justice and environmental protection is also one to be answered. However, regardless of where it goes, the fact the CI is getting our campus talking about a myriad of issues and creating a model of how North Park should function is revolutionary in itself.