On one of her first nights as a UChicago student, Meera Dhodapkar was walking across campus when she noticed the lights of an empty outdoor ice rink. The sight on the Midway Plaisance in the fall of 2015 brought back fond memories of Central Park in New York, where she first learned to skate, but it also served as inspiration for connecting with her new community.
As a high schooler Dhodapkar competed for Team USA in synchronized skating, in which 16 people perform a program with intricate formations and step sequences. But it was also during this time in which the New Haven, Connecticut native taught the sport to aspiring young skaters as a volunteer instructor.
“I learned a lot about what it means to work with kids, but I really gained a deep appreciation for the sport and what a privilege it is to share it with others,” said Dhodapkar, now a third-year student studying biology and public policy. “That was something I wanted to be part of my college experience too.”
She realized a similar program at UChicago could help local children have fun while learning crucial skills and healthy habits. With the help of the University, Dhodapkar founded a free program that introduces children to skating, promotes an active lifestyle and cultivates good sportsmanship.
Over the course of the past three seasons, the ChicaGO! initiative has grown to reach more than 120 students from neighboring schools. With the help of four UChicago student volunteers—each experienced skaters—Dhodapkar teaches weekly classes focused on basic skating techniques, ranging from falling safely to skating forward and backward to executing two-foot spins.
“To know that I could inspire others to take an interest in the sport is something I couldn’t pass up,” said Calvin Chu, a third-year UChicago student volunteer. “The students begin as we all do: nervous and afraid of falling. But over time, they gain confidence through skating, and those are the moments I’ve cherished as part of the program.”
Creating community partnerships
Dhodapkar formed an initial proposal for the program after participating in UChicago Leads, a weeklong pre-orientation program focused on individual leadership development and leadership in the context of the community. Her biggest challenge was making the program available to all participants.
“Ice skating is a sport that can be fairly inaccessible to individuals,” said Dhodapkar. “Not only is it a small sport, not generally offered in schools, but it can be very expensive and difficult to find lessons. Our rink is free admission, but many rinks are not. Even paying to rent skates once a week can be a financial burden.”
To ensure the program reflected the interests of the community, Dhodapkar sought help from Shaz Rasul, one of the community-focused leaders she met during pre-orientation. As executive director of student civic engagement activities at UChicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, Rasul helps student civic engagement activities improve their efficacy, stimulate innovation and create new partnerships.
“We are in an era in which there are so many resources at the University for students looking to do something positive for the community,” said Rasul. “Part of our commitment at the Office of Civic Engagement is to help students think through their ideas, connect them to local community organizations and provide the tools to determine if an idea is a good fit for the local neighborhood.”
Rasul received a positive response from members of the Neighborhood Schools Program, a local education partnership he heads, so in winter 2016, his office helped Dhodapkar by funding a one-day pilot event for 30 students.
In 2017, the program was formalized and the following year it offered weekly lessons to 50 participants over the course of winter quarter. Civic Engagement assisted Dhodapkar with grant proposals and helped forge partnerships with local organizations to fully subsidize the cost of skates and admission to the rink.
“I am personally very humbled by the number of people that wanted to engage in the program. It’s become much bigger than I ever could have imagined,” said Dhodapkar.
Next year, Dhodapkar hopes to expand the program, potentially offering lessons two days a week while organizing one-time skating events to reach more students. An aspiring physician, she also wants to apply the knowledge she has gained while studying public health and urban health disparities at UChicago. She is in the process of pursuing grants to incorporate formalized physical health and nutrition educational components into the program.
Dhodapkar said the program offers important lessons, both on and off the ice.
“There are huge benefits in learning how to persevere through challenges,” said Dhodapkar. “Every time you get on the ice, trip on your toe pick and take a nosedive, that’s a learning experience. The ability to take a hit but also learn from it is one of the most important things I’ve learned from the sport.”