As it gets warmer, many students of “Chicago’s Big 10 School” will choose to venture beyond their typical winter home-class-food triangle, perhaps even as far as the Lakefill.
This year, ASG and the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) are hoping to expand the trend to include the city of Chicago. After several months of planning and meetings, the CCE and ASG began a pilot program this quarter that will reduce the financial challenge of traveling to the city by providing students with subsidized trips on the ‘L’.
When SESP sophomore Michael Deneroff came to Northwestern, he noticed that many of his peers very rarely escaped Evanston. Like many students, one of the reasons Deneroff chose to come to Northwestern was its proximity to the city. During his freshman year, he joined ASG’s Community Relations Committee with the goal of expanding the opportunities students had to engage with Chicago.
“A lot of times student groups are doing some great things,” Deneroff said. “But it’s always that phrase of like, ‘the real world,’ [but] we’re part of the real world! So if this is the ‘fake world’ I want to connect it to what people consider the real world. Getting involved with the city is a big part in that.”
The CCE began distributing 100 CTA passes a week just two weeks ago to students traveling to Chicago for civically-oriented activities like museum trips, volunteering and neighborhood exploration, and Rob Donahue, the CCE’s associate director, says it’s already a hit.
“It’s sort of a pilot for us,” Donahue said. “We’re not committed to doing it this way forever, but we wanted to see how students would use it and which students would use it. So far it’s gone well … [passes] get gobbled up pretty quick.”
Donahue has been a part of the Center since its founding eight years ago, and has seen an increased energy, both from students and the administration, in civic engagement. In the past, each time the University would send out surveys to graduating seniors, they would mention they wished they’d gone downtown more, Donahue said.
“It was not a secret that Chicago gives us this huge competitive advantage,” Donahue said. “But at the same time, it was also not a secret that we were not doing as good a job as we could as an institution in really leveraging the city for lots of reasons – for the sake of our students, for the sake of our research and teaching, for the sake of the city.”
A few years ago, after a very successful orientation program that sent 400 first year students on various excursions throughout the city, the Center decided to make the initiative year-round and available to all years. Students came back from the program wanting more.
“[The orientation program] provides an on-ramp for folks,” Donahue said. “We say we want you to take advantage of the city, but what tends to be easy to take advantage of is the tourist sites … All those things are great, but if you want to understand the city, [tourist sites are] a very surface-level understanding.”
Part of the hope of expanding what used to be an orientation program into a year-round one is to provide older students with another entry point. Donohue said spring seemed liked a good time to do it because that’s when students “get into their groove and in a bubble and we wanted to disrupt that.”
This time last year, the CCE founded the “Spring into Chicago” initiative, which aimed to bring Northwestern undergraduates into the city through programming throughout the quarter.
This program worked well for a couple larger-scale events each quarter, but ASG Community Relations began thinking last spring about students more interested in exploring neighborhoods or visiting museums on their own or in smaller groups.
“Students sometimes want to do things on their own with a group of friends, not necessarily organized programming,” Deneroff said. “It’s a different niche, and this is one I think really needs to be filled. I just thought that it was a shame that that little cost could be a barrier for some people to get into the city.“
That’s where the Civic CTA Initiative comes in. Students can apply for a pass online after giving details about what they’re doing and when they’re planning on doing it, then pick up the Ventra card the next day at the CCE office. Deneroff said for a long time students have been pushing to make “L” rides more accessible like this, but they’ve often done so by trying to use the U-Pass program that Loyola or University of Chicago used. The University was not a fan of the expensive program, because it would have ended up tacking $200 onto the student activities fee. This would have required students to ride the CTA three or four times a week to make it pay off.
“At UChicago it might make a little more sense because they’re actually in the city,” Deneroff said. “But at Northwestern, some will have more consistent trips to the city but others will go maybe once or twice a month so it just really isn’t worth it.”
Offering CTA passes on an as-needed basis seemed like a logical next step to the student-led Steering Committee that looked at how to grow the NU in Chicago program. Of course, there are still a number of barriers the CCE and ASG must tackle before the pilot program can be considered a success.
“As far as the average Northwestern experience, [engaging with the city] was not seen as an expectation,” Donahue said. “We’ve been slowly chipping away at that cultural piece and the norms so then there are all these additional barriers. Time is a huge one and also the over programming at Northwestern. And then there are logistics: 20 years ago we didn’t even have the shuttle service; that’s not something we’ve always had at Northwestern.”
However, as of this spring, hopefully cost will be one less thing for students to worry about. The CCE will pass out 1,000 passes this spring and reevaluate the future of the Civic CTA Initiative after the spring pilot.
“We’re not there yet, but this is definitely a good start,” Deneroff said.