Student Stories

Through Pre-O, incoming students get a crash course in the history of their new campus and city

Incoming students explore campus and beyond virtually through Discover UChicago

For the College’s newest students, entrance into the University of Chicago community began virtually. But these students still needed an up-close understanding of what their lives would be like as undergraduates—and as new residents of the city of Chicago. That’s where this year’s Pre-Orientation programs got creative.

Discover UChicago began on September 8 with a virtual tour of campus architecture, giving hundreds of incoming students inside details about the places they will become familiar with during their time in the College. Over the next two weeks, the Pre-Orientation program offered opportunities for incoming students to connect with scholars, civic leaders and their undergraduate peers through over two dozen events.

These virtual experiences included tours of the neighborhoods surrounding Hyde Park; a presentation about the history of public housing in the city; a conversation on the built environment with Emily Talen, director of the Urbanism Lab; a live improv comedy performance from the Second City and many others.

“We wanted to help students really understand the dynamics at play in the city of Chicago today,” said Matthew Hendricks, senior director of College Programming. “By connecting them with resources about the history and people of our city, we’re getting them oriented to campus while also teaching them to think like a UChicago student before they even arrive.”

Discover UChicago was comprised of five Pre-Orientation programs that would traditionally run during August and September: International Pre-Orientation, Phoenix Outdoor Program, Chicago Urban Explorers, Chicago Bound and UChicago Leads. While these programs would usually welcome select groups to campus in advance of Orientation Week, this year they adapted to bring their programming to all incoming students virtually. The shift brought innovative opportunities for students to connect during a time of social distance.

“The highlight of my experience was seeing the incoming first years’ enthusiasm shine through each event,” said fourth-year Alesia Michel, a student director of Chicago Urban Explorers, while discussing the architecture tour. “While the host was talking through the history of each building, the incoming first-years flooded the Zoom chat with hundreds of messages expressing their optimism about the school year and disbelief that they were really UChicago students. It was so heartwarming to see a group of young adults being excited about their future here.”

Undergraduate leaders were instrumental in assisting with this shift in programming. Fourth-year Erika Steiner, a student director for Phoenix Outdoor Program, normally would have run a five-day backpacking trip for a small group of students in early September. Instead, she developed programming for all incoming students that covered topics from Chicago’s indigenous people to diversity in park spaces.

“We sat down as directors with the building blocks — outdoor education, environmental activism, community building, an introduction to UChicago — and then let our imaginations run,” Steiner said.

While expanding its reach to all incoming students, Discover UChicago was also able to embrace the strengths of virtual events. Many of Discover UChicago’s presenters, for example, were able to participate because they tuned in from across the city and country, a feat which would not have been possible in a traditional Pre-Orientation set-up.

Over 800 incoming students participated in Discover UChicago to prepare for the start of the school year.

“As I’m transitioning into my first year at UChicago, I’m excited to explore campus and the city to actually see the landmarks mentioned in the virtual tours in person, while keeping in mind the complex history of these places,” said first-year Lauria Sun.

Many first years have arrived on campus, and they carry with them a foundation of knowledge from Discover UChicago. The adaptability of the incoming class, according to Steiner, is to be admired.

“I remember coming into college so uncertain,” said Steiner. “The fact that students are still showing up, still engaging, still functioning under an even greater sense of uncertainty—it blows my mind every day. If these students—most of whom didn’t get to graduate high school in person and all of whom will start college in unprecedented chaos—deserve celebration for something, it can be making this orientation work for them.”