LegUP Woodlawn Gives Local High Schoolers a Leg Up in the College Process

Undergrads guide local high schoolers through college admissions.

There are likely many students who attend UChicago who never want to think about college applications again. Others, like the founding members of LegUP Woodlawn, strive to give back by helping high school students through what can be a confusing process.

The brainchild of UChicago undergraduates who met through the Institute of Politics’ (IOP) Sargent Shriver Program for Leadership in Public Service, LegUP Woodlawn is now an IOP civic engagement initiative, allowing undergrads to form lasting connections with local high schoolers and mentor them through the college applications process. Now in its inaugural quarter and laying the groundwork for more ambitious plans in the spring, LegUP Woodlawn works alongside students at UChicago Charter School’s recently constructed Woodlawn campus (UC Woodlawn).

“A group of students who were passionate about equity and education came together to help high school students in Woodlawn achieve academic enrichment and college readiness through intensive mentorship,” explained Wendy Lee, a fourth-year and a co-chair at LegUP.

This focus on “equity” is especially important to LegUP’s leaders, who envision this initiative meaningfully bettering the lives of these high school students.

“I think the big thing to me is that I’m really concerned with educational equity… This is one of the points where what happens during this period of [school] is going to be really determinative of their lives: immediately, what college they go to, whether they go to college, and then beyond that,” said Spencer Reed, a third-year and a classroom coach manager, a role where he helps manage LegUP’s group of volunteer college coaches.

This quarter, the team is solidifying its presence at UC Woodlawn and “trying to get to know as many students as possible,” as Lee explains. Next quarter, LegUP will work closely with a small cohort of high school juniors, helping them prepare for standardized tests, college essays, and more. Each member of LegUP’s team of volunteer college coaches will be assigned a student at UC Woodlawn to work with over the next year.

Hoping to forge close connections between UChicago and UC Woodlawn students, Lee envisions college coaches devoting at least a few hours every week to meet with their students and for at least one member of the LegUP team to be at UC Woodlawn every day of the week. Offering weekend programming for these students is another priority for LegUP’s leaders.

“We want to be someone they know they can rely on… We want to make sure that the relationships that are created between college coaches and UC Woodlawn students are really long-term,” Lee said.

LegUP’s goals for this initiative—fostering long-term connections with high school students in the hopes of substantively bettering their lives—are certainly ambitious. This is made all the more remarkable by the program’s more humble roots, starting as a hazy idea by members of the Shriver program. A year-long IOP program named in honor of the Peace Corps founder, the Shriver program helps UChicago students develop and lead innovative public service projects.

Last year's Shriver Program fellows pose outside the Institute of Politics.

After a year learning about civic engagement through weekly workshops and meetings with community leaders in Woodlawn, the Shriver program participants coalesced around the idea for LegUP. Connecting the local community’s desires for more youth programming with their own unique experiences enduring the college applications programs, LegUP’s founders thought a college readiness mentorship program would balance UChicago students’ interests and the community’s needs. Six of the initial 12 members of the Shriver program, including Lee and Reed, currently serve as LegUP’s leaders.

Both Lee and Reed saw the Shriver program as a foundational component of LegUP’s development, helping students already passionate about public service develop a viable organization.

“I had been somewhat involved at the IOP and gotten something out of it, but I realized that my real interest was civic engagement, and I wanted to step up… and put myself in positions where I felt like I was useful and could grow into a leadership role. [The Shriver program] was perfect,” Reed said.

“I wanted to know how to apply the stuff that I was learning in my public policy classes and my political science classes… I’ve always been interested in a career in public service or public interest law, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity,” Lee added.

The IOP, which was the precipitating force uniting the founders—who had never met each other prior to their participation in the Shriver program—continues to fund LegUP and organizes mentorship workshops for LegUP’s leaders.

“We’re excited that the LegUP team has seen such great success at recruiting UChicago students. The leadership of this program has invested significant time in ensuring the program itself is impactful and addressing a specific need within the Woodlawn community… As we’ve often said in our advising sessions with LegUP – you have to put the community first. If you build a program around them, you will see success,” said Crystal C. Coats, Director of Civic & Campus Engagement at the IOP.

Beyond just allowing UChicago students to form lasting connections with local high schoolers, LegUP provides undergrads the opportunity to learn how to act on their passions and lead civic engagement initiatives. This has been especially important for Lee and Reed, both of whom talked about envisioning futures for themselves in public service.

“We’re learning so many new skills. We’re learning how to partner—us as an IOP program—with schools, with nonprofits, with other community organizations… We’re learning so many things about leadership, about not only public service but how to effectively impact a community,” Lee said.

Reed is both hopeful for the future of LegUP and meditative on how far the group has come so far.

“We really went from twelve people a year-and-a-half ago who had never met each other and had very little experience actually piloting a program like this to… starting a brand new public service program. It’s really an incredible journey to see that, and that journey’s not over,” Reed said.