OP-EDS

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May 30, 2008

Community lip service

It's reprehensible that an accepted student would ever feel any sort of discouragement from the University (especially concerning volunteer work), but perhaps more importantly, the University needs to be more careful about potentially reinforcing outsider stereotypes of Chicago life. After all, not only are these generalizations ignorant, but pragmatically, they have the potential to limit current students' opportunities for outreach..

[img id="80658" align="alignleft"] Overnight programs are essentially the University's last chance to make its pitch to prospective students, so I take it upon myself to spew as much pro-U of C information as possible to any student who sleeps on my floor. Winters in Hyde Park? Ha! Mild. Homework? Easily manageable. So when a prospie recently confessed to me that she felt that the University wouldn't be supportive of her efforts to spearhead an American Cancer Society relay, I was disappointed with the marketing skills of the University. It's reprehensible that an accepted student would ever feel any sort of discouragement from the University (especially concerning volunteer work), but perhaps more importantly, the University needs to be more careful about potentially reinforcing outsider stereotypes of Chicago life. After all, not only are these generalizations ignorant, but pragmatically, they have the potential to limit current students' opportunities for outreach.

One such perception is that the U of C is located in an unsafe or racially tense area. Although this has some truth to it, this perception is also excessively reinforced through both the actions of the University and those of the general public. During O-Week, U of C students are quickly impressed with the importance of qualities such as "safety" and "awareness" in an "urban environment," and it's difficult not to be perpetually conscious of potential danger when more than 140 state-certified officers are constantly around to remind you. While some safety measures are obviously necessary, the University seems to emphasize the area's danger as particularly irreparable and something that students simply need to accept and spend four years avoiding. In contrast, other universities in comparable urban areas have reduced crime without resorting to brute police force: Penn, for example, has reduced crime by 49 percent over the last decade with a less visible police presence than ours. It's important to consider the repercussions that such in-your-face safety measures can have on the way in which students think about their relationship to the city, and whether the measures we've chosen are simply painting a grim, or even apocalyptic, view of Hyde Park that is hardly justified in its extremity.

Another factor contributing to Chicago's image is the amplification of the city's history of racial tension through the current political landscape. A recent CNN segment cited Barack Obama's experiences on the South Side as a contributing factor to his acceptance by both the black and white communities. Obama's visibility reinforces the national opinion of Chicago as a city that was, and perhaps still is, in particular need of racial dialogue. Additionally, efforts on the South Side are being exalted as especially virtuous, which can change the way that students view their own service in the community.

Thus, the real concern is not whether or not stereotypes about Chicago are justified, but rather how focusing on the South Side can ultimately limit student opportunities. Even if Chicago is particularly dangerous or impoverished, that certainly doesn't exclude other regions from having significant social troubles. The diversity of U of C students themselves means that different people may be better equipped to assist with different issues, and to promote Chicago as an area in dire need of help restricts the ways in which students feel they can make an impact.

The prominence of the city's troubles also prevents students from dealing with broader issues. The prospective student made the cogent observation that the majority of the University's volunteer opportunities were based in the surrounding community. As a person particularly interested in service on the international level, she was concerned that she wouldn't be afforded the ability to do the work she wanted to in the next four years.

Although it's certainly more convenient to clean up Jackson Park than it is to coordinate a national relay, students are missing out on both the opportunity to gain large-scale leadership experience and to have a wider impact when they choose to do only local work. Furthermore, our school certainly has the resources and the standing to have far-reaching effects: Not taking advantage of that opportunity is distinctly irresponsible.

Improving community relations is obviously a necessary and valuable goal, and the University ought to be concerned with improving the surrounding area for both social and safety reasons. However, painting Hyde Park as an exceptionally dangerous area and then having that perception reinforced by national media can prevent students from maximizing their use of the school's international influence.

Most people expect their time in college to broaden their horizons, and while many students have never lived in an urban area before, replacing one realm of knowledge with another is hardly beneficial. It's important for students to be aware of the fact that living in Chicago in no way limits activism to Chicago. Improving conditions on the South Side may be salient enough to snag a presidential nomination, but that certainly doesn't mean that U of C students have to settle for Chicago as the only place where they can make a difference in the world.

Melissa Maciejewski is a first-year in the College.