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Colleges and Universities

Using Chicago at DePaul

NCR Staff

With talk of Catholic identity, Vincentian mission and urban identity dancing in their heads a few years back, administrators at urban DePaul University decided to focus more explicitly on the school’s location in one of the nation’s great cities.

The general education program was due for an overhaul, said Charles Suchar, professor of sociology and associate dean, and appreciation for diversity was one of the learning goals. So why not use the city as a laboratory for learning?

“We decided to bring urban identity to the front door of the students’ education,” Suchar said. “If our Vincentian urban mission wasn’t reflected in our curriculum, then we had to ask, ‘How can we claim it as our identity?’

“You might say, ‘It’s the curriculum, stupid.’ An institution’s values have to be reflected in the curriculum at some point.”

The result is a program Suchar conceived that helps new students get comfortable with a potentially overwhelming urban milieu, provides opportunities for bonding, offers a combined experiential and academic approach that gets students excited about learning, and introduces them to diversity, not through talk and role-playing, but through encounters on the street.

Oh, yeah. And boosts their self-esteem.

All at once?

All at once, according to students, faculty and administrators who say worlds of anecdotal evidence, and some statistical evidence, too, demonstrate that they have a program, one of the most innovative in the country, that works.

The program has three parts: Discover Chicago and Explore Chicago, umbrellas over a variety of tantalizing course options from which each student must choose for the first quarter of the freshman year, followed in one of the next two quarters by Focal Point, a mind-expanding seminar-style course, also chosen from a smorgasbord of possibilities.

In both Discover Chicago and Explore Chicago an urban theme is the focus of the whole course, drawing on aspects of the city’s vibrant life. Discover Chicago begins with an “immersion week” of course-related urban experiences before the formal opening of classes for the year. During the next 10 weeks of the quarter, the goal is to reflect on those experiences and integrate them into academic learning through reading, writing and discussion.

The best way to understand how it works is through examples.

Jeff Carlson’s course revolves around a study of the city’s new immigrants, viewed through the lens of their religious organizations. Carlson is associate dean and professor of religious studies. His course is called We the People? Chicago’s Newer Immigrants and Their Religions. Among experiences during immersion week, students witnessed an oath-taking ceremony for new citizens, visited Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish centers, as well as a Chinese Catholic church and the Chinese-American Service League. They also did a service project for students in a Catholic school.

Immersion-week days are long: Ten to 12 hours, sometimes divided between class and city streets, and ending with reflection on what students have seen and heard. All students get Chicago Transportation Authority passes and take public transportation wherever they go, giving them a comfort level with the system and with neighborhoods that it might otherwise take months, or even years, to acquire. They learn that they can go safely anywhere in the city as long as they are smart about it, Carlson said.

Although 81 percent of DePaul’s students are from metropolitan Chicago, many do not know the city well when they arrive, he said.

Courses are led by teams: a faculty member, a member of the student life staff and a paid student leader, or mentor, giving students three people they can turn to throughout the year for ongoing advice and support.

In the 10-week quarter that follows, the course gets academic. Students read essays and books that give depth and context to their experiences and enrich them with a variety of perspectives.

This quarter Carlson’s students will read three books:

  • Thomas Dublin’s Becoming American, Becoming Ethnic, a collection of essays by college students over a 10-year period -- “a wonderfully done book that provides models for my students for what students can do,” Carlson said;
  • Michael Walzer’s On Toleration, which takes a more theoretical approach; and
  • Richard Wentz’s The Culture of Religious Pluralism, a study of American religions with an eye toward living in a pluralistic society.

Dublin’s essays will be interwoven with the other two books and against student recollections of immersion week. That approach underscores a point Carlson often stresses: “Experiential learning is not just having experiences but relating them to other ideas,” he said. Carlson said the goal of the program is integrative learning at its best: Experience enriched by intellectual reflection and vice versa. No mere tourism here.

Among some 20 other course offerings are these titles: Love and Committed Relationships, Chicago Style; The Power of Place; Historic Preservation as Public History in Chicago; Blue Collar Chicago: People with Big Shoulders; Chicago’s Murals and Public Art; The Diverse Faces of AIDS: Prevention, Education and Treatment; Empowering Chicago’s Women (where trips include one to Jane Addam’s Hull House, renowned for its service to the poor).

Anne Clark Bartlett’s Chicago in Literature course focuses, she said, first “on how contemporary authors are making sense of their own experiences in Chicago,” and second, “on how students can make sense of their own experiences as developing human beings in Chicago through writing.”

During immersion week, the group (groups are never more than 22 students) toured Bronzeville, the once-proud and cohesive Black Belt of Chicago’s South Side that went into decline and attracted large housing projects in the early 1960s. Today it is undergoing revitalization and renewal. Students also visited the Guild Complex, the venerable literary center in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood and stomping grounds for Chicago writer Nelson Algren, whose book City on the Make, a back-alley view of Chicago, is “an expression of love” for the city, Bartlett said. Students also visited Third World Press, which publishes unknown writers and distributes books to prisoners.

In Fr. James Halstead’s Love and Committed Relationships, Chicago Style, students visited people in homes and convents, in neighborhood and social centers, learning more about a variety of relationship styles, from arranged marriage to gay partners to vowed celibates. Students also visited City Hall, where they found a better understanding of related civil and legal issues. They then read two to four books about relationships.

Another course, Justice-Seeking in Chicago, took students to Cook County Hospital, where many found a couple hours of conversation with the director of internal medicine there to be not only informative but inspiring, prompting some to look at their own goals for their lives, said Frida Furman, who teaches that class. “Some people the students encounter become real models for their lives,” she said.

The program also serves as a recruiting tool. Travis Rejman of Iowa said he’d decided to attend DePaul largely because the Discover Chicago program looked so interesting and he wasn’t disappointed. Carlson’s course “was a real turn-on for me,” he said.

The Focal Point seminars, mandatory in one of the two successive semesters, start with a classic as defined by University of Chicago theologian David Tracy: a person, place, event or idea that represents such a strong expression of the human experience that it gains a kind of “normative status.”

Examples of Focal Point topics over the past few academic years include: Gandhi, Tiananmen Square, the French Revolution, the Chicago Fire, Lourdes, the Holocaust, Sigmund Freud, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Sermon on the Mount.

Students are expected to read “widely and deeply,” Carlson said, across a range of texts, viewing their chosen topic through multiple lenses, acquainting them from the start with “the nature of university-level inquiry.” Often they come to the seminars with assumptions that are challenged, extended or even reinforced by exposure to a variety of new perspectives.

The result for many, he said, in a talk last November at the annual meeting of the Annual Academy of Religion, is “a sense of mastery” of a subject that makes them feel great about learning and themselves. “They can go home and show off to their families,” he said. “Many of our students are the first generation to attend a university. One should not underestimate the effect this feeling of relative mastery can provide for a student.” One-third of DePaul’s students are members of minority groups. The freshman program not only breaks down stereotypes, but also “empowers minorities in a wonderful way,” he said.

Perhaps one of the measures of the success of the program is the size of this year’s freshman class: 1730 students, 16 percent over last year’s freshman enrollment of 1490. This year’s predicted enrollment was 1500, Suchar said.

Then there are those student ratings. Not only did DePaul students report a higher degree of satisfaction than students at any other school in the latest survey by Princeton Review publishers (DePaul ranked first in a category called “happiest students”), they also ranked second among schools whose students judged theirs to be a “great college town.” The rankings appear in The Best 331 Colleges (Random House, 1999). According to an Aug. 25 article in the Chicago Sun-Times, Princeton Review’s lead author Ed Custard finds such a high degree of satisfaction to be “very unusual at a commuter school,” where it’s often harder for people to bond.

Carlson said faculty and staff are continually working to strengthen the campus culture. “We’re constantly trying to make DePaul more of a community,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999