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Urban Exposure

During one week in the Windy City, community-minded Northwestern students learn about Chicago's most pressing social needs and how they can make a difference.


by Jennifer Wedekind (J06)

When Maggie Mascal came to Northwestern as a first-year student, she had trouble finding a sense of community. But by sophomore year she became aware of a cohesive group of students that seemed different — a group that she wanted to be part of. "They were so focused and aware of the positive aspects of our society," she says.

This group had one thing in common — FUP.

The Freshman Urban Program, or FUP, is one of Northwestern's three pre-New Student Week offerings. Participating first-year students come to campus a week early and spend five days living at Hostelling International-Chicago while getting acquainted with the city, its neighborhoods and various community organizations.

"It's an incredible opportunity to interact with the city in ways a lot of students never do," says Mascal, a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences junior from Stevens Point, Wis., who served as one of 17 counselors for the 67 first-year students on this year's program.

The mission of FUP — to educate students in the housing, education, immigration and urban planning issues that affect each community and to demonstrate the ways students can create change — is set against the backdrop of the teachings of Northwestern's Asset-Based Community Development Institute. The institute challenges the traditional approach to solving urban problems, focusing not on difficulties and deficiencies, but on the community assets already in place -- including available resources, the skills of the local residents and the power of local organizations.

John "Jody" Kretzmann (G85), co-director of ABCD Institute and a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy, is a longtime mentor and supporter of the FUP program.

"I think the main reason I'm always excited about [FUP] is it introduces life at Northwestern as life with Chicago," he says. "Chicago is such an incredible classroom, and it broadens the students' educational experience."

From Bronzeville to Uptown, from Pilsen to Rogers Park, FUP introduces the students to local service organizations. Each day the students split up into small groups and shuttle off to sites such as the Spanish Coalition for Jobs, which focuses on helping Latino residents become economically independent by providing educational, vocational and employment services; the Howard Brown Health Center, the Midwest's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health organization; and the Albany Park Community Center, a diverse organization offering housing, employment and business services along with counseling, child care, youth services and tutoring programs. The Northwestern students do everything from shoveling gravel and lawn maintenance to tutoring children and singing show tunes with elderly Alzheimer's patients.

At Bethel New Life, a faith-based organization located on Chicago's West Side, Jennifer Ray, from Florissant, MO., gets into the steady rhythm of raking leaves during a cleanup project. The biological sciences major appreciates the opportunity to help out. "I need to work hands on with people and communities as a way to prepare for medical school," Ray says. "So it's good to be here."

This year's FUP coordinators — Weinberg juniors Jared Davidson and Barrak Alzaid and Weinberg senior Tyler Jaeckel — selected sites frequently visited by the student-led Organized Action by Students Invested in Society, or OASIS, and the Northwestern Community Development Corps, organizations that promote civic engagement through direct service, social awareness and advocacy. "We try to find sites that are homologous with our mission," says Davidson.

At the end of each day, the students reconvene at the hostel for nightly discussions to "bring the sites and experiences together with the intellectual side of the issues," says Davidson. Then students break up into small groups to decompress and share their day's experiences.

Counselors know that FUP can be an eye-opening, if not life-changing experience. Becca Donaldson, a Communication sophomore from Wauwatosa, Wis., says she became a counselor "to inspire students the way last year's leaders inspired me."

Fellow counselor Lisa Wang of Chapel Hill, N.C., says FUP introduced her to the social policy aspect of Chicago and taught her things that she wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise.

"FUP helped me realize that these social issues were tied to so much more than just politics, but also community, history, and human behavior and development," she says. Now a Weinberg sophomore, Wang is transferring into SESP and looking to major in social policy. "Seeing these abstract concepts in the form of real people and communities really affected me and encouraged me to act upon my concerns."

FUP was developed in 1989 as an offshoot of the Northwestern Volunteer Network to prepare student leaders and introduce first-year students to the range of volunteer opportunities in Evanston and Chicago.

Northwestern Community Development Corps co-chair and SESP junior Lauren Parnell says many former Fuppers join the NCDC — and often become leaders of the group. "It's pretty clear that they're fired up and ready to get active," Parnell says. "It makes a huge difference when you're working in a community to know the neighborhood and know the people who live there."

But FUP isn't the only leadership program offered to incoming freshmen — a common application allows incoming students to apply to all three programs: FUP, CATalyst and Project Wildcat.

CATalyst is a 40-person, four-day leadership development program held at a retreat center in Lake Geneva, Wis. Students explore the social-change model of leadership development through interactive workshops, low- and high-ropes courses and a series of problem-solving initiatives.

Project Wildcat, or Pwild, takes small groups of students on five-day backpacking tours, where they make new friends, learn about the Northwestern community and transition to college life — all without taking a shower. This year's first-year students — 117 in total — were split among Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, Lake Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota and the Porcupine Mountains Recreational Area in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Many students say they apply for FUP because it offers an opportunity to help others while learning about Chicago and getting to know their peers. "At home I do a lot of community service and I really enjoy it, so this program was perfect," says Fupper Casey Rubinoff, a first-year Weinberg student from Potomac, Md. "It also helps as a freshman to start Northwestern knowing a few people."

During their first weekend in Chicago, the Fuppers spend a Saturday working at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a nonprofit food bank serving the Greater Chicagoland area. The Fuppers stuff after-school bags as part of the Nourish for Knowledge program — the Food Depository's new partnership with the Chicago Public Schools. The bags are given to underprivileged students who participate in the after-school programs.

"The bags contain enough shelf-stable food to take home for the weekend if their families cannot feed them," explains Caroline Sexton, director of volunteer services at the Food Depository. In addition to the healthy snacks, often a school supply or small toy is added to the mix.

"We're doing a simple task, but you know it's making a big difference," says Rubinoff.

Perhaps the biggest difference comes in the lives of the students.

"You can choose to let FUP change you or you can choose to let it be a social event," Mascal says. "If you go into it with the mindset that you want it to affect you, it will change you more than all four years at Northwestern."

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Michael Marsh-Soloway
Michael Marsh-Soloway, a first-year Weinberg student from Woodbridge, Conn., carries a box loaded with snack bags at the Greater Chicago Food Depository on the city's South Side. Photo by Mary Henebry
Angela Ellington and Maggie Li
Angela Ellington, a first-year School of Communication student from Lonoke, Ark., and Maggie Li, a first-year Medill School of Journalism student from Madison, Wis., stuff snack bags for the Chicago Public Schools' Nourish for Knowledge program. Photo by Mary Henebry