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Reflecting on the pandemic

After a year of unprecedented circumstances, our staff and students are sharing their stories. You'll hear about the difficult decisions made by staff and changes to the structure of our program to keep our students' safety as the top priority. Through it all, our students found success, received job offers, and experienced exponential personal and professional growth. Here are just a few of the stories from this past year at Chicago Center. 


Shea Walsh

fall 2020 Student


Originally, I was planning to attend a different off-campus program in New York City. I have dreamt of moving to NYC my whole life, primarily due to my love for theater. However, when COVID first struck, my program was shut down almost instantly. My internship advisor at Albion College quickly referred me to The Chicago Center – who I was able to get on the phone with within a week. 


The process was so easy and personalized, I knew my decision after that first call. I was aware Chicago had a great theater scene, but I figured much like NYC, all theater internship opportunities would be placed on hold. Keep in mind, this was my senior year and my last opportunity to fit a theater internship into my schedule. As an accounting and theater double major, graduating in four years required a very specific arrangement of my course requirements. 

I spoke with Victory Gardens Theater shortly after deciding on CCULC and they worked with me to create a hybrid who-know-what-will happen internship plan. Truthfully, this was the best possible outcome I could have hoped for. I was able to move to a city and immerse myself in the new theatrical norms; including protest plays in the park and bringing drama to online schools. 

While working with Victory Gardens, I interviewed with a boutique accounting firm in NYC that has a special industry for commercial and non-profit theater. As I now had experience in both non-profit theater and accounting, they offered me an internship for the upcoming busy season. I accepted a full-time offer with WithumSmith+Brown just last week – meaning I will be moving to NYC after all. I will be doing my Master of Accounting next year at the University of Michigan and will begin full-time with Withum in the Fall of 2022. 

It is funny how things work out, especially amongst pandemics. I had to go to Chicago to land my upcoming job in NYC. My experience at Victory Gardens and CCULC have already affected my career path in a most positive way and I haven’t a doubt they will continue to do so.

Sam Kottke

fall 2020 Student

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​I have always been critical of our education system and our established standards for students. Shifting to online learning during a global pandemic has made systemic issues in our education system more apparent than ever before. For decades black students, disabled students, Latinx students, English Language Learners, and many other groups have experienced drastically disparate educations. Yet, none of our policy changes or new educational theories have made a significant impact due to the fact that educators really love to use new "models" or language or training without addressing the structural problems within the education system itself.


While teaching online during a pandemic was incredibly challenging and often left me burnt out, it brought new validity to how we critically analyze our schools. We need to seriously consider the meaning and intention of everything we do, from grading to curriculum and be open to significant and radical changes. Being at the Chicago Center made this perspective possible for me. Living with other teachers and creating community provided really intentional space for processing and imagining. This really reset my priorities as an educator. I'm sure a lot of teachers in training can relate to feeling like we are being taught how to conform to a system. What language we need to use to get a job, which acronyms are important, how standards differ between states etc. Without really exploring or questioning why the education system exists in its current form.


Working in Chicago made clear the importance of disrupting the status quo and being ok with being uncomfortable. We as new teachers do not have to conform to the system that exists but instead hold the power to revolutionize the way schools function. While teaching online, even the most veteran teachers admitted to feeling like they didn't know what they were doing, and related their experience this past year to that of their first year as a rookie teacher. This goes to show that even with years of practice and experience, teaching will still be an imperfect art.


The close friends I had the privilege of living and working with constantly discussed how we want to teach with the intention of always being fluid and open minded to changes and new, radically progressive ideas. Why not do things differently? Why not embrace change? Education has been static for far too long, but this past year has the capacity to create significantly impactful change that starts with us. 

Nancy friesen

urban Student teaching director

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When our Spring ’20 student teachers arrived to meet their Chicago Public School students and cooperating teachers last January, they did not expect to say goodbye to them on google classroom.  They didn’t expect to hold our seminars on zoom to discuss the transition to remote teaching, nor did they expect to help discover and create all the new techniques and strategies educators around the world suddenly needed.  Soon, we knew how to help students unmute themselves, how to screen share, and could find the most internet stable corners of our homes.  Yet, under the new circumstances, what was good pedagogy?  What routines would work?  How were teachers’ roles evolving?  How do students really learn best?  And what did “asynchronous” even mean?  

No college course prepared them for it. They had to trust themselves to improvise; and improvise they did, contributing to the profession right alongside veteran teachers.  When students showed up for screen learning, our student teachers helped to make moments worthwhile.  Our student teachers led in various ways, from compiling a video instead of conducting a live concert to creating on-line collages and staging readings.  They were there for their students, their cooperating teachers and their schools.  By the time they moved on to accept first teaching jobs we were all settling into a new normal.


As a profession, we continued to learn a lot over the summer about technologies and best on-line practices.  We learned how to sift through the suddenly plentiful pinterest ideas and apps for those that solved actual problems instead of filling time with gimmicks.  We had time to reflect, plan and learn, and we began to think of necessity as an opportunity.  Maybe we could also solve problems that had long plagued education, from inequities to antiquated conventions.  Our fall ’20 student teachers arrived with these concerns elevated in their practices and reflections, knowing that they had an opportunity to shape their students’ experiences, if not the entire profession.  So as they claimed spots in our apartments to set up their screens, speakers, and document cameras, as anchor charts and posters appeared on the apartment walls, and as coaching sessions were conducted remotely, I began to appreciate how prepared they truly were to create relevant online learning environments and to build relationships.  

Then as it became clear that schools would not open any time soon, educators collectively began to worry about the social and emotional health of our youth.  We learned to build in social emotional learning, and our student teachers served as the consistent responders for students and families.  They “saw” them more often than anyone outside of their homes.  They didn’t gain experience managing classrooms of kids with disparate energies—a typical focus of the student teaching semester, but they did have the experience of prioritizing and simplifying to basic essentials, which clearly were not merely “reading, writing & ‘rithmetic,'' so much as the authentic relationships and consistent presence they provided.  They created online environments students looked forward to, and then learned from. 

So while no one could have expected remote teaching when they first dreamed of coming to Chicago for their student teaching semester, they also might not have imagined helping students experience the joys of writing songs or studying the civil rights movement remotely.  They might not have imagined building and maintaining relationships through a screen.  Yet that is what I heard most about:  the connections they were making in spite of physical distance.  So if the year has highlighted anything in education, it certainly is a reiteration of the reminder that we teach whole persons in their whole contexts, not just subjects.  We knew that, but now we know it more.

Lane Chesebro

Former Executive director


Serving as Executive Director of Chicago Center during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the greatest responsibilities and challenges of my professional career. As the world grappled with the reality and subsequent panic caused by COVID-19, Chicago Center staff was responding to our students' concerns and needs, campus partners, placement partners and citywide ordinances. We decided early on to prioritize student safety and comfort, which meant supporting those students that wished to leave the city and be closer to home as travel restrictions loomed while also remaining in operation for those students that felt most comfortable remaining in Chicago and living at the Boulevard. We pivoted to remote learning immediately and began working with each placement site and partnering campus to ensure our students would graduate and meet all necessary requirements. We planned for future terms immediately and made the difficult decision to run a summer program for 6 students that desperately wanted the opportunity. All of these decisions were difficult and made possible by the amazing Chicago Center staff and Board. 


One of the most beneficial components of Chicago Center is the raw and real experience students have encountering the city and their future profession. We do not operate in a vacuum and our students are given access to organizations and communities throughout the city. That access and shared experience was especially important as students that attended Chicago Center during COVID-19 were part of the fabric of the city and numerous organizations as we all tried to figure out what the next steps looked like. The overwhelmingly positive feedback we received from all students during this pandemic provided affirmation that our efforts to find a way through were not only appreciated but also life changing. To be a part of that experience for students alongside our amazing staff and dedicated partners throughout the country was humbling and extremely rewarding. 

taylor perez

summer 2020 Student


Applying for the Chicago Center was one of the best decisions I have made in my life thus far. I was in a place in my life where I had a lot of questions, but not many answers. I credit the Chicago Center for providing a way for me to discover answers to those questions. 

Days upon arriving in Chicago, I was excited to be on my own. I could not wait to be an adult in a big city. I remember my stomach dropping when I reached the point in my 10-hour drive when my mom and I saw the skyline grow over the horizon. I was very unsure of myself, I had no idea if I would be able to function on my own, and while I was so far away from home, during a pandemic, nonetheless. My uneasy feelings were quickly put to rest after the first night when we played games and ate deep-dish pizza. The weekend orientation allowed me to be comfortable navigating the city and introduced me to the five other students with the Chicago Center. 

I spent most of my free time with my boyfriend, Braden, who I met through the Chicago Center. We lived on the same floor and instantly became the best of friends. We went on dates downtown, including the Chicago Brewhouse and a picnic in a park near the Bean. The Chicago Center sponsored trips for us to go to the Shedd Aquarium and the Lincoln Park Zoo. The only restrictions due to COVID-19 were that we could not eat inside at most restaurants, and we were required to wear a mask in most places, which was not bad at all. 

My internship was with the Hyde Park Herald, a local newspaper in Hyde Park. It was mainly remote, we had zoom meetings to assign stories and discuss leads on future stories. I enjoyed interviewing the locals during their protests and strikes, as well as documenting how schools in the neighborhood were handling the pandemic. My time with the Hyde Park Herald opened my eyes to how exciting journalism in the real world is, because writing for a small on-campus newspaper, you do not get to cover protests in big cities. I realized how much I enjoy telling stories for people who may not have the proper platform to share their perspectives.

I benefited greatly from the Chicago Center still being up and running during the pandemic. I was accepted into two different Graduate School programs for Mass Communications and Journalism. Aside from the academic benefits and the work experience, the Chicago Center helped me grow as a person. I now have confidence in myself to navigate a large city, I know I am able to do things that I never would have thought I would be able to if it were not for the Chicago Center. 

Chelsea cooks

fall 2020 Student & 2021 Apprentice


The year 2020 shook my world.


I had worked three years completing the max amount of credits to graduate a semester early and spend it in London. But, like many students in the world, I received the news that I would have to shift to virtual learning in mid-march, which meant the last moments shared with friends, professors, and even chances of walking at graduating early ending immediately. After some tears, I realized that I could still have a meaningful senior semester. I decided to attend The Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture to conclude my undergrad career at Alma College. 


After reviewing the protocols about five times and quarantining, I made my way to Chicago. During my time as a student, there was never a dull moment. I enrolled in the Internship Program, where I interned with Polished Pebbles. This non-profit organization caters to Black and Brown girls located on the southside of Chicago and southside suburbs to teach them effective communication and job readiness. I found myself immersed in the city. For class, visiting various neighborhoods like Roseland, Pilsen, Altgeld Gardens, and Paseo Boricua allowed me to see the beauty in these communities while understanding the struggles they face. Working with Polished Pebbles, I worked with young girls of Chicago from 4th -12th grade on their communications skills to better prepare them to navigate the world while gaining project management skills.  


I realized that the more I explored the city, I wanted to extend my time in Chicago. I decided to apply for the apprentice position and got the job! My transition from a student to a staff member was easy. The Chicago Center gave me a lot of support as a student in the fall, which has only increased in the spring. With the enhanced support from staff, I was ready to bring the Spring 2021 students in. Being the only staff member who experienced learning during Covid-19, I learned how to work remotely, create structure, and even urge myself to explore the city after long work days in the boulevard for self-care. These experiences helped me connect and develop relationships with the students. 


Like our students, I have had time to explore the city further and experience amazing food, beautiful artwork and see the city’s many personalities. I also continue to work with Polished Pebbles and volunteer with other organizations when time permits.  With one semester under my belt, I hope to foster a fun and safe space for students while exploring my creativity through social media. I would have never guessed that joining the Chicago Center back in August would bring so many relationships and opportunities in my life.

MacKenzie Weadick

Spring 2020 Student

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2020 was supposed to be my year. I was heading to Chicago to do an internship I had been looking forward to since I was a sophomore to finish out my senior year. It started out so normal; almost exactly as I had planned for it to be. Weekdays were spent at my placement during the day, and the evenings were spent doing homework in the living room watching New Girl with my roommates. Weekends were spent touring museums, heading to the candy bar, or walking the magnificent mile. Then, all of a sudden, COVID hits. 


We genuinely thought nothing of it at first. Sure, we might close down for a week or two but that would be the worst of it, right? Chicago Public Schools shut down. Internships now had to be remote. For many students there was now no reason to stay at the Boulevard. The first student left on March 18th and by March 20th only two of us remained. It happened so quickly and saying each goodbye was harder than the last. Thankfully we had each other to keep company, but we were still lonely. The city felt like it was both in absolute chaos and completely baron at the same time. Everything was closed, people were dying at increasingly rapid rates, and graduation ceremonies had been cancelled for the foreseeable future. It was honestly really hard to stay positive during this time. 

I had been offered a job at my placement a few weeks before the COVID shutdown and was being given more responsibility to prepare for that move from intern to case manager and I felt incredibly guilty for not being there when I felt like my clients needed me the most. The minute I was officially hired on as full-time staff I came back and got right to work. I don’t know if I was bored or if I genuinely wanted to go back to the office. More than anything I feel like I just wanted to act like things were normal. Why did I feel like this? I had been successful at my placement and they offered me the job – just like I planned. Maybe it was selfish, but I didn’t want it like that. I didn’t want my job to be harder, I didn’t want the only thing I could look forward to doing to be work, but it was and I was so upset. It felt like everything was being taken away from me, but I also felt guilty in feeling that way because I had a job and a place to live and so many others, some of which being my own peers, did not. 


Fast forward to one year later and it has become so much more normal. I go to work every day, I moved into my first apartment, places are starting to open again, vaccines are being distributed, and we can finally start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Scott Chesebro

Urban education instructor


One year ago few understood the disruptive consequences the pandemic would wreak on every aspect of American life and closer to home on education at every level. As our partner colleges closed their campuses, Chicago Center said good-bye to the Spring 2020 Semester students a month before the term ended. The new operative term quickly became “virtual learning” with attendant tutorials on Zoom and Google Meets. Instructors scrambled to create credible  alternatives to in-person learning.


As SummerTerm approached students already accepted into the program began to inquire about the Center’s plan for going forward. Ironically we had more applications than usual which made closing the program a difficult option. Our Director polled the staff and consulted with our partner colleges. Most of the colleges were open to allowing students the choice to participate if the Center decided to stay open. The staff decided to go forward with protocols that met state and federal guidelines. As an instructor I knew it would be a challenge to engage students with the city and provide a quality internship while honoring protocols and placing student safety first.


Internship sites that agreed to work virtually and observe required protocols were chosen for the students. I recall meeting the Summer students in the DuSable Museum Park and congratulating them for their choice. I did my creative best to give students as much experience with Chicago’s diverse communities as possible. We started with a bicycle tour of Bronzeville and followed with a walking tour of the murals in Pilsen. As institutions and cultural venues continued to close the challenge increased.


We had a successful Fall Semester and with the students’ cooperation we are completing the Spring Semester without incident. It has taken all of us working together and supporting each other to make it through this challenging time. When I look back at the decision to keep the program open, I think of the more than 20 students who participated this year in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the Center is for most students. I can’t imagine now not doing whatever I could to give students that opportunity.

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