Academic Stories

Through Chicago Studies, students engage with the city to have a meaningful impact

Program empowers undergraduates, explores ethics of academic research

On the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, a group of University of Chicago students hiked the six-mile long path of the blaze to learn more about the city they call home during their undergraduate studies.

The tour was organized by the College’s Chicago Studies program, which aims to educate students in both urban scholarship and citizenry. Students have the distinctive opportunity to engage with their chosen disciplines through real-world applications in the city, making for a truly transformative educational experience.

“I think it's really important and exciting to be able to explore the city that we're living in,” said first-year Micayla Roth. “Getting out with the school and meeting other kids who were interested in doing the same thing was pretty exciting.” 

The Great Chicago Fire hike on Oct. 8 was a perfect example of the Chicago Studies mission. Beginning near the West Loop neighborhood, the hike traveled northward toward Lincoln Park. While providing a historical account of one of the darkest moments in the city’s history, the tour also encouraged students to think about how their choices affect the city today.

“It was interesting to see just how unprepared [the city was in 1871], how so many factors can be overlooked,” said Roth. “It makes you think, what else are we overlooking? What could happen because we're not prepared?”

With the return of on-campus activities this fall, Chicago Studies has been busy with a robust range of programming to help students engage with a city still recovering from COVID-19.

“Chicago has weathered disasters before,” said Chris Skrable, director of the Chicago Studies program, who led the urban hike. “So much of the city burned down and had to rebuild. This past year, we didn’t burn down but shut down, and this has caused a reckoning with the identity of the city. It’s exciting to be studying Chicago at a time Chicago is studying itself.”

Chicago in practice

At its core, Chicago Studies’ mission is to build reciprocal, respectful collaborations between the College and the city. The origins of the program date back to 2007, when the University of Chicago Women’s board funded an occasional lecture series and an annual journal of undergraduate research involving the city. Since then, the program has grown to include over 40 annual cross-listed courses and innovative curricular offerings, a robust range of support for Chicago-centric undergraduate research, a variety of curricular and extracurricular events, and partnerships throughout the city

Chicago Studies’ flagship curricular offering, the Chicago Studies Quarter, was first launched in 2015. Modeled after study abroad, the Chicago Studies Quarter course bundles offer students immersive experiences through integrated classes that focus on a common theme, as well as field trips, guest speakers, discussions with community leaders and directed undergraduate research to enrich the courses’ readings and assignments. 

“Chicago is not just a host, in this context. It has become a partner in sharpening your insights about the world,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “But it’s also important to see that you’re giving back, producing scholarship that increases our understanding of the city. Chicago Studies offers students in the College a fundamental point of engagement so that they might form reciprocal relationships with the city.”

By using their resources and knowledge in a respectful, conscientious way, students can become true partners to the city, according to Skrable:

“We’re laying the groundwork for students to use their skills and curiosity, now or in their professional roles later in life, to answer questions for the Chicago community.”

Given the events of the past year, Skrable has found Chicago Studies programming to be more in-demand—and more necessary—than ever before.

“As both Chicago’s diverse communities and our University community find ourselves in a liminal space, reckoning with all that we’ve learned about ourselves in the extreme challenges of the past two years, I think we’re ever more aware of how much we have to learn from one another and how much we have to offer one another as we build a better future for everyone in our city.”

The city as a classroom

As Chicago Studies has expanded, the program now offers a certificate to recognize students who have made a positive impact on the Chicago community throughout their academic journey. This option is open to students of any discipline, and can encompass anything from academic research in the city to pre-professional experience to advocacy work. Tailored to their specific interests, certificate requirements are meant to help College students see how the classroom and the city truly connect.

As the multimedia specialist for Chicago Studies, third-year Akwe McDaniels produced videos for tours throughout the city to familiarize students with various neighborhoods, as well as historic buildings on UChicago's campus. This role has transformed her understanding of herself as a student and Chicago resident.

“Our learning tends to be so theory-heavy, and it sometimes feels like there isn't a way to push beyond that into the outside world,” she said. “By engaging with Chicago Studies and learning more about the city, I've honestly been able to connect the classroom to the city in ways that I didn't necessarily think I'd be able to.” 

A double major in political science and visual arts, McDaniels said she has been able to take what she learned in the classroom and observe how that plays out in the city: “Chicago is a city with a really rich political history that continues to this day.”

McDaniels also credits the program with empowering her and her fellow students to interact with the Chicago community in a conscientious way.

“I think that Chicago Studies is really special in that it helps students to become aware of the fact that they do have an impact on the environment around them,” she said. “There's kind of a sense of communal responsibility that I think comes out of learning about a place.”