Turning Challenges into Opportunities: University of Chicago, Northwestern, and Princeton in Chicago

By Krystal  Hill ’11, AlumniCorps Intern

On June 9, 2010, alumni volunteers and fellows from the Project 55 Fellowship Program, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University public interest programs attended the first annual Chicago PIP conference. All three programs work together to provide fellowships in the nonprofit and public interest sector to recent graduates in Chicago.

The conference in June was a promising and helpful opportunity for all three fellowship programs to reflect on past goals and to plan for the future; it was a collaborative effort that pinpointed funding, alumni involvement, mentoring, program management, and program evaluation as common concerns. According to Vince Anderson ’65 – a mentor who now coordinates partner organization recruitment as well as working on seminars –  it was the first meeting of its kind. By bringing the three schools together in a collaborative setting, each gained a better understanding of how to reach out in Chicago and in other major cities across the nation.

While the three schools each see civic engagement, social change, and community outreach as their programmatic focus, each school models different leadership and faces different kinds of challenges. The University of Chicago Public Interest Program (UCPIP) started in 1999 as a volunteer program led by John Fish ’55, a founder of Princeton Project 55 and also an alumnus of the University of Chicago. Inspired by Project 55 fellows, and with the help of Fish, UCPIP modeled its fellowship program after Princeton AlumniCorps.

In 2005, two alumni and a faculty advisor launched the Northwestern University Public Interest Program; a mostly student led organization and, in some ways, one also modeled after Princeton AlumniCorps fellowship program. After its inception, Northwestern joined the University of Chicago and AlumniCorps programs. This collaborative effort, the sharing of seminars and broadening of support networks, would come to be known as the PP55 Chicago Program. As a result, this collaboration has allowed the University of Chicago and Northwestern to uniquely benefit from what AlumniCorps has learned over its 20 years of sustained impact.

Yet AlumniCorps’ independence from Princeton University and strong network of loyal alumni volunteers is a challenging model to recreate. Kelly Kleiman, a board member of UCPIP,  talked about the difficulties confronting the two Chicago schools: “We’re all fighting university bureaucracy, handling it in different ways.” Kleiman, also an organization recruiter, is concerned with UCPIP’s inability to reach out to smaller non-profits because of inadequate funds. Fund-raising, according to her, “is critical to UCPIP’s handling of university bureaucracy.”

For Northwestern, the challenge is increasing alumni involvement. Northwestern, in particular, sees “social capital” as a key to its fellowship program. “Social capital,” said Stephanie Arias, a rising senior and student coordinator of the Northwestern program, is about “making connections” and bridging the gap between the University and the community, getting more involved. “We need to pitch to them [alumni] that it is not about money but about connections…social capital as opposed to financial capital.” Arias suggests that Northwestern must reframe the way they understand the city and their role in it as alumni.

By attempting to follow Princeton’s alumni-driven model without losing a foothold on their student-led approach, Northwestern has not lost sight of their school’s perspective. UC is also moving in a similar direction. Tom Berg, UC alum and chairman of UCPIP said, “The challenge is to adapt [Princeton AlumniCorps] model within the culture of the university.” While Berg understands the looming challenge of following AlumniCorps’ model, he also sees the opportunities. The opportunity to connect with the city of Chicago – and potentially others cities – to build up their universities as civic leaders in the community is one that both schools do not want to pass up. As with AlumniCorps, they are determined to ground themselves in a common mission for civic engagement, social change, and community outreach.

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