Tuesday, December 02, 1997

Full Service-Interview with Michelle Obama

Full Service
The Chicago Maroon
By Pamela Appea
Maroon Reporter Pamela Appea spoke to Director of UCSC Michelle Obama about community service opportunities at the University of Chicago.

Maroon: Starting from scratch as a director of a new program must have been incredibly challenging. What do you feel that you have accomplished in your year here at the University of Chicago.

Obama: The major challenge for me is really understanding this University community. I’m not a University of Chicago product in any way, shape or form. So I’m coming in as a complete outsider needing to understand the culture of this place.

To understand the moods and wishes of the students is difficult. What moves the students on this campus? What gets them out of their dorm, out of the Reg into [other] things? Not to say that academics isn’t the primary reason why students are here but there is so much more to gain from community service.

How do you motivate students to do something other than study? The community side is, I wouldn’t say a cakewalk, but I know what the issues between the community and the university are. I know the positive and negative perceptions. I know the history.

I know how community residents perceive this place: the community sees this place as completely inaccessible.

But at the same time, I understand that we are fortunately housed in a community, in a neighborhood, surrounded by vibrant, creative engaging programs, people and places who would love nothing more than to work more closely with the University.

They may not know how they want to do it or how we can best be of support but I think with the right conversations and relationships this program will succeed. It is not difficult cultivating opportunities.

The community is lining up outside the door trying to get to the students. The challenge is how to connect students, not just to find out what they want to do but to think about what the community needs.

Maroon: How does a University of Chicago student get involved in community service through UCSC?
Obama: People do it in a variety of different ways. It’s easiest to schedule an appointment [at the Reynolds Club 001] although there are plenty of people who just drop by.

There are also office hours. It depends on what the individual student is looking for.

If a student came in to the Reynolds Club and said to [Pamela Bozeman, assistant director of the community service center] ‘I want to volunteer. I don’t know what I want to do, but I just want to volunteer.’

We would definitely want to sit down and think through a little more with you what your strengths are, what time commitments you wanted. Do you want to work for an agency or a specific center? Do you want to work with kids? Is transportation an issue for you?

We try to get your information on the database. We encourage you to look at the database or if there are specific other opportunities that may be available which are not in the database, we’ll do the legwork in trying to see what else is out there.

We also get ‘requests’ for lack of a better term from groups from fraternities, dorm houses that want to do group service projects and are looking for a way to spend a Saturday or doing some good in the communities.

So those are some of the ways that students can get involved.
From the beginning of this year, our office has begun to manage funding work-study community service opportunities that are paid positions during the academic year.

We’re trying to encourage students who may not feel they have the time to get involved with community service. Not everyone can afford to get involved, between a heavy academic course load, a work-study job and whatever financial [constraints they may have].

Paid opportunities open up community service to a broader set of students. Everyone on this campus could spend a year in some way, shape or form devoted to community service.

Maroon: this past year, the Dean of Student Services increased the Student Activities Fee by 59%. Some of the money is purportedly being used for community service. If so, how is it being used?

Obama: Last year, with the increase of the student activities fee what was created for the first time was a separate fund for community service RSOs [Registered Student Organizations].

That was done with the hard work of the Office of the Dean of Student Services. Thirty thousand dollars, generated from student activities fees, was set aside or designated specifically for community service.

People would argue that $30,000 out of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that students pay for student activities is simply not enough, but we are measuring the fact that there were no dollars set aside simply for community service last year. The University community service groups were left to fight it out among the other RSOs.

Our office was responsible for coordinating what is called the Community Service Fund (CSF.) CSF consists of a committee of 13 members; the majority of which are students. Of the nine students, there is on SG (Student Government) representative. Then there are four community members who were appointed by the USCS office.

The students were elected by the USCS advisory council. We, the USSC oversee.
There are 13 or 14 organizations which are designated University community service organizations, such as APO, the service organizations such as APO, the service fraternity, Habitat for Community, Student Teachers and Science Partners for Teachers.

So those community service groups come to us for their annual allocations. Also, there are separate standards for reviewing requests. Our office manages the process of allocating those dollars but those are student dollars and they go to student activities.

None of the money goes to USCS which is how it should be. In that sense, its just like SG. Student Government money doesn’t go to ORCSA (Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities.)

Maroon: The SummerLinks program, which was created last year by the community service center, offered paid community service positions to U of C students. What was this program like?

Obama: Most students worked a full forty-hour week. There was a wide variety of jobs. Internships ranged from working as a policy assistant in the mayor’s office to teaching in the public schools to working on exhibits at the Museum of Science and Technology.

Others also worked for a program at the Robert Taylor Boys and Girls Club or at the Washington Park Youth Program. Having housing available helped to create a community among the interns; it was one of the big successes of the program.

Interns were able to come together on a regular basis and examine and view other issues to learn about what their fellow interns were doing and learn about what was going on in almost all of their agencies.

Maroon: Community service programs may abound but oftentimes volunteers are not sufficiently equipped with the skills or the support system to do community service. How did the SummerLinks internship differ? How did the students respond to such a program with the structured workshops and the range in workshop discussion?

Obama: Community service can be extremely isolating. Number one, it’s much harder than people anticipate. A lot of people go to volunteer thinking it will be neat, a ‘fun’ thing to do. It is the hardest stuff you can do because the issues in service are very complex.

You can work your fingers to the bone for a whole summer and only scratch the smallest part of the surface of the problem. Sometimes it can be overwhelming.

So, you need to be able to share those frustrations and find productive ways of addressing the issue aside from just quitting, of saying this is too hard, forget it.

At SummerLinks, we [a] had 100 percent success rate; no one left the program, no one quit. That’s not to say every placement was perfect.

Some people felt completely overworked or some people felt completely overworked or some people felt their relationship with supervision was less than perfect. For next year, the only limitation of SummerLinks is that you have to be a returning student.

Because there are so few slots and so many applications, we want to make it available to thirty new students and we will try to find a way to integrate last summer interns in the program. Also, the SummerLinks internship is not exclusively for work-study students.

Maroon: So in conclusion, what are your goals and expectations for the university in terms of community service for this year to come?

Obama: My hopes are that students will put community service on their agenda. The way I look at it, every college student has four years. For college students that’s twenty-four quarters. That’s a lot of time even if you are pre-med, working two jobs.

Out of that time, I would hope that students would plan a way to incorporate some period of that time to somebody besides themselves. Whether that is to a student organization that’s doing community service, whether it’s a work-study job or volunteering or whatever. If you don’t do it now, don’t fool yourself that you are going to be some altruistic person later on, because you not.

We live in a society that you can’t afford that, people have to find a way to get to know their community. Chicago is a place where you can experience anything you want. Good or bad, positive or positive or negative, political or non-political.

Students should be actively involved in the forefront as leaders developing skills that you just don’t learn in the classroom. I’m not saying that one set of skills is better or worse than one another, but they’re different. If you’re going to be an effective leader in whatever you do whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher, these experience are going to be critical to developing the skills that its going to take to be a member of this community. Community service does this for students. I’ve seen it time and time again.

Associate Dean of Student Services and Director of the University Community Service Center (UCSC)
Princeton University, B.A.
Harvard Law School, J.D.
Support Mechanism supported by UCSC

Database of hundreds of volunteer community service opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students
Created SummerLink programs offers paid positions for 30 summer positions
A resource for a few paid work-study community service positions in Chicago.
Offers volunteer training sessions once a quarter

Hosts the UCSC discussion series. Topic of past discussion have included education reform and juvenile justice.

Provides a Neighborhood bus tour once per quarter to promote social awareness. A previous tour went to Woodlawn/Kenwood neighborhood. The next planned tour will be of Pilsen/Little Village.

Originally published December 2, 1997