Spring break trip inspires careers in civil rights

Undergraduate ‘trek’ part of program exploring issues and professional opportunities
Eighteen people pose on stairs that rise from both left and right, meeting at a balcony before a door.
Photo by: 
Albert Cesare
This was an extremely enlightening chance to interact with top civil rights organizations and learn about the different issues that they face on a day-to-day basis.
Jose Heredia
Fourth-year

As a College student interested in civil rights and education, fourth-year Jose Heredia spent spring break traveling to Alabama and Georgia, visiting key historical sites and meeting with civic leaders about future careers paths.

Heredia, who aspires to work in a field addressing education equity issues, was one of 23 undergraduates on a career “trek” to Birmingham, Montgomery and Atlanta. During the immersive five-day experience, students visited a range of organizations, including nonprofits, government offices and civil rights museums while meeting civil rights professionals who provided a look into their careers and advice to students as they plan for life after graduation.

“The civil rights trek was an opportunity I would not want to let go past me,” said Heredia, who is majoring in public policy. “This was an extremely enlightening chance to interact with top civil rights organizations and learn about the different issues that they face on a day-to-day basis.”

A group of people in hijab and Arab garb stand smiling in a stone-tiled, open-sided arched hallway.First-year Rocio Pacheco said of her career trek to Dubai: “Each and every one of the site visits was fruitful, with the hosts taking the time to show us their company and accept any questions we might throw at them. It was interesting to see all the different perspectives they each held.”

Students on the trek also visited sites historically significant to the Civil Rights movement, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had served as pastor; the 16th Street Baptist Church, which spurred a new wave of civil rights activism following an attack by the Ku Klux Klan; and Kelly Ingram Park, where demonstrators rallied for racial equality.

The civil rights trek was one of seven offered to UChicago students during spring break. They spanned 10 cities and 50 employers across three countries—ranging from an arts and media trek to Los Angeles to a consulting and STEM trek to the United Arab Emirates to a business trek to Seoul, South Korea.

The career trek program, organized by UChicago’s Office of Career Advancement, offers 45 such trips each year around the world in which undergraduates connect with potential employers to get a close-up view of their target career field.

Investing in students’ career ambitions

Thousands of students have attended career treks since the program’s inception in 2008. Treks allow students to explore their post-graduation options, build their own network of professional contacts, and gain advice from recruiters and organizations on how to be a competitive applicant for internships and full-time jobs.

A tour guide faces a group of people in a parking lot, hands spread. Parked cars and palm trees are in the background.First-year Ethan MacCumber said of his career trek to Los Angeles: “The most important thing this trek did for me was to help me ask the right questions to employers—and to myself—about how I should plan my professional life.”

This year’s civil rights trek was created in response to an unprecedented level of interest and support for civil rights among UChicago students, said Meredith Daw, associate vice president and executive director of Career Advancement.

“The University of Chicago pioneered career treks to help students and employer partners achieve their recruiting goals,” Daw said. “For students, treks are an ideal opportunity to meet industry leaders, build their resume and explore different career paths within their field of interest. We hope this experience has prepared them to continue and build upon the legacy that civil rights professionals have established in Alabama, Georgia and throughout the United States.”

To ensure the trek was accessible to all students, UChicago organized a fundraising campaign to subsidize the trip costs. Thanks to donations of all sizes from more than 75 alumni and parents throughout the world, students did not pay for airfare, lodging or ground transportation during the trek.

A student looks into the raised water pool of the Civil Rights Memorial. Behind the pool is a tall black slab with the words, "UNTIL JUSTICE ROLLS DOWN LIKE WATERS / AND RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM".First-year Ah’Shaiyah Mitchell at the Civil Rights Memorial on the Civil Rights Trek. (Photo by Albert Cesare)

“The amazing level of support from the alumni and parent community is truly humbling,” said Daw. “Their generosity allowed students to focus entirely on making the most of their trek experience.”

“I thought the trek was amazing,” said third-year student Sarah Wasik. “I’m now convinced every American should go to Alabama to truly understand what the United States has gone through as a country and the work that needs to be done to help move us forward.”

Building connections with civil rights leaders

Several prominent organizations participated in the trek to Alabama and Georgia, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Carter Center, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the offices of the Mayor of Birmingham Randall Woodfin and U.S. Congresswoman Terri Sewell.

All of these organizations offered opportunities for students to ask questions about both civil rights issues and their own career paths. While at the Southern Poverty Law Center, students had the chance to meet with staff members in various roles, some with legal backgrounds and some without, and appreciated learning about different pathways to a career in civil rights. During a joint trip to Medical Advocacy and Outreach and the ACLU, they also heard from medical professionals about their community work and health-oriented approach to civil rights, which some students hadn’t considered before.

A man in a suit addresses a group of grinning students seated in rows in a wood-paneled room.Students talk with Mayor of Birmingham Randall Woodfin. (Photo by Sam Joyce)

The students each had different academic interests and career goals, but all shared a passionate commitment to civil rights and look forward to applying what they learned during the trek.

“My ultimate goal is to find a career in which I’m advancing the lives of others,” said Anya Martin, a fourth-year student in the College and aspiring immigration lawyer. “In light of the tense political and social climate we currently face, I feel that this trek could not be any more timely or relevant. I hope to use my newfound knowledge to inspire myself and others to find ways to become more involved in this critical field.”

This story was originally published on the University of Chicago website.