Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable
As Clara Beck prepared to finish her third year of undergraduate studies, she was ready for a challenge that would push her limits. The Chicago Center presented that opportunity in the Spring of 2021 and gave her the skills to navigate a new city and bring her out of her comfort zone.
What she wasn't expecting was the chance to develop a project that would eventually lead her to present at three conferences and graduate with departmental honors from Alma College. Now heading into graduate school, she shares that the Chicago Center allowed her to expand her horizons and tackle any challenges that come her way.
CC: How did you get introduced to the Chicago Center?
CB: I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but I was talking with one of my professors one day during my second year at Alma College when she mentioned the Chicago Center as well as a program in Philadelphia. I looked at the two programs and decided on the Chicago Center. This conversation happened before the pandemic, and I knew I didn’t want to study abroad, but I wasn’t aware that there were opportunities for off-campus study in the U.S. until my professor told me. It was the perfect mix of getting me out of my comfort zone while not dropping me into a completely unfamiliar situation/place.
CC: What were your first impressions of the city and the program when you arrived?
CB: I remember driving through Chicago, coming from Michigan through Indiana to get to the boulevard. As we got closer, I was somewhat in awe from what I remember. I had visited Chicago before, but mostly just the area of the Magnificent Mile. I had no idea that a big city could look so comfortable and pretty, with parks, trees, and red brick buildings. My idea of a big city like Chicago was what you see around the loop; glass and steel and concrete. It was a big shock for me because I grew up in a small town, and I did my undergrad in a small town, so except for vacations once in a while, big cities like Chicago were totally new to me.
I will admit it was nerve-wracking at first moving in and getting around; getting around by walking and using public transportation was utterly unknown to me, and I like to plan things, so relying on public transit was scary because I didn’t exactly know where I was going or how to get there until it happened. It was a lot of learning in the moment. It helped that we had help our first time navigating the neighborhood on foot and using public transportation. The program was incredible once things got going after we were quarantined for the first two weeks. It wasn’t always easy, but I learned and adapted, and it ended up being the best thing I’ve ever done for myself because of how much I grew and learned.
"Because of the program, I was more secure in applying to schools in faraway places. I can now trust that although it may be terrifying and challenging, I know I can make a life for myself in an unfamiliar place. "
All About Me
CC: Where was your placement? What was the work like due to the pandemic?
CB: My placement was at Seminary Co-op Bookstore & 57th Street Books. I never went to my placement in person during the semester because they were closed due to the pandemic. But when I visited Chicago on a family vacation a few months later, I visited my placement site, which was incredible. I highly recommend checking out the bookstores. I worked Monday through Wednesday from 10 am until 5 pm with a half-hour lunch break, usually at noon or 12:30. I had longer hours than the other two people in the internship program with me at the time, but I honestly loved it. I brought a rolling desk from home that I set up so I could roll it over my bed while I worked from the boulevard. The first few weeks involved a lot of zoom calls while I was taught how to do things, but eventually, I could do things mostly on my own; even new things came easier as the semester went on.
My official job title was marketing intern, and I did a lot of social media marketing and creating posts for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. All of my work was double-checked before it was made public, but it was still incredibly exciting, and I felt an indescribable feeling of something like pride when I saw my first post on social media. I even downloaded Instagram and made an account to see the layout and how to market better (I love Instagram now). My favorite thing to do was the children’s newsletter; I mentioned to my placement that I was interested in children’s books, and they let me put together the monthly virtual children’s newsletter there. The books had been picked out ahead of time, and the formatting was taken from the previous month’s newsletters. I added summaries from the publishers and images for the books. I did that all four months I was in Chicago. It was excellent, and I was shown websites I used to write my thesis after I left Chicago.
CC: How did working with the Urban Internship Program impact your future plans?
CB: Woking on the Children’s newsletters gave me the idea for my final project for one of my classes in Chicago, which turned into an idea for a master’s degree thesis but ended up becoming an undergrad thesis that allowed me to graduate from Alma College with departmental honors in English. While adding the books to the children’s newsletter one month, I realized that I saw much more diversity in the books than anything I had ever been exposed to. Remember, I grew up in a small town and did my undergrad in a small town, so I hadn’t had much exposure to diversity in the books I read growing up. I was amazed by the diversity regarding race, religion, and gender identity/sexuality that I saw in the books I was looking up for the children’s newsletter. It was incredible, and I can honestly say it was a life-changing moment for me.
It started me on something indescribable that grew and developed until I wrote a thesis on racial diversity in picture books that I was able to use to present at three conferences, graduate with departmental honors, and get into my top choice grad school. All of the work I did for my classes, my internship, the way I was able to adapt and thrive living in a completely new and unfamiliar environment, and the life I created for myself in the few months I lived in Chicago really proved to me that I wanted to go to graduate school and that I wanted to branch out on my own and leave home for real (Alma College was only about 45 minutes from home for me). I had one year left at Alma College after I left Chicago, but because of the program, I was more secure in applying to schools in faraway places. I can now trust that although it may be terrifying and challenging, I know I can make a life for myself in an unfamiliar place.
In Fall 2022, I will start my master’s program at the University of Washington in Seattle. My program is the MLIS (Master’s in Library and Information Sciences), and the University of Washington has one of the top programs in the country. I have changed my future plans a little bit as I intend to turn my focus towards becoming an academic librarian and working in higher education as opposed to becoming a children’s librarian. However, I still hold a passion for diverse picture books because of my thesis and my time in Chicago. I owe all the risks and rewards I’ve taken in the past year to the Chicago Center and the Urban Internship Program, which gave me the opportunity to discover and grow into the things that have shaped my future.
We asked Clara about her...
I honestly really loved Hyde Park. I loved walking and getting to places like Starbucks, Target, CVS, Subway, and Dunkin Donuts very easily. I had never been able to go anywhere without using a car.
My mom visited me the weekend after my birthday, and we walked down the street to the lake and spent a few hours there. There were also so many different people! So much diversity!
And it still felt small enough that it wasn’t too intimidating compared to what I grew up with. I just love Hyde Park.
I want to say it was in the Paseo Boricua neighborhood. For class, we went to Nellies, but I had pancakes that were so good and tried my favorite new food of the semester, a piece of fried plantain. I only had one piece, but I remember being proud of myself for trying it.
what is not
to be missed
The murals, the artwork, and the people. Just go out and walk around and look around you. There is no one thing that I can say about this. I have more memories than the ones I’ve mentioned, and it would take more time and many more words to describe them all.
There are one or two that I want to hold close to my heart for myself, but I wouldn’t mind sharing someday. Just keep your eyes open whenever you go anywhere and notice the small things and the big things around you, introduce yourself to people, and let yourself fully experience your time in every neighborhood. People are more friendly than you might think.
CC: Being an alum of the program, what advice would you give to a future internship student
interested in joining the Chicago Center?
CB: It’s not going to be easy at first, and there may be things you never end up liking, even after you leave (public transportation makes me motion sick, and I’m still not a big fan), and not everything will be great. But go into everything with an open mind and let yourself take it all in. Don’t push yourself so far that you end up regretting it but push yourself a little. And bring your past experiences into every new adventure because all the excursions and the people you meet will be felt more deeply if you allow yourself to view them through the lens of your personal experiences; that’s what happened to me.
Speak up! Say what you think and feel, and allow other people to share their feelings and compare. Don’t be afraid to be wrong or have an opinion that nobody else has; it will enable you to change your mind and perspective based on what other people say. Respect your limits, and don’t push yourself farther than you can; I have issues with food, and visiting new neighborhoods and trying new foods and cuisines was the hardest for me. But I was honest with myself and those around me about my limitations, and they were very supportive when I tried something new and when I couldn’t. Chelly (Chicago Center’s Communications Coordinator), in particular, was my cheerleader for trying new foods without ever pushing me in a way that made me uncomfortable.
You don’t have to do absolutely everything; it’s good to have new experiences but if there is a day (or many days) where you need to stay in and take care of yourself because you’re feeling overwhelmed or just tired, or anything else, allow yourself to take that time. There will be more days and more experiences, I promise.