EXPERIENCE: Participants work with local leaders and community members on neighborhood issues.


Engage Chicago is an immersive residential program, designed to give students a powerful summer learning experience in one of the nation's most dynamic cities. This eight-week academic program includes five complementary components — each designed to enhance student learning and promote meaningful community experiences. The components of the program (including a sample weekly schedule) are detailed below:


Internship Placement

Students are placed in internships at top nonprofits throughout the city of Chicago. The internship comprises the equivalent of three and a half days of work each week. Sites are selected and placements made based on student interest and community need. Participants may be placed individually or in teams of up to five, according to size and need of the host organization.

Through this internship experience, students receive mentorship and supervision from skilled nonprofit leaders, gain knowledge about the ways in which nonprofit organizations address urban challenges, and plan and implement projects that support the mission of the host agency.

All placement sites are program-approved Chicago-area nonprofit and civic organizations serving underprivileged communities and/or doing advocacy work around issues of social justice and civic engagement.  Engage Chicago staff work closely with individual students and community partners to identify the best internship matches possible. Examples of past internship placements include: 

  • Legal Aid Foundation of Chicago
  • Carole Robertson Center for Learning
  • Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition
  • Free Spirit Media
  • Chicago Public Schools Office of School Turnaround
  • Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

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Course Objectives

By the end of the program, students will:

  • Understand the complexities of major American cities, the various institutional stakeholders, and their interplay in affecting contemporary social issues.   
  • Become familiar with the most important social change and community development strategies, their histories and the controversies surrounding each.
  • Gain exposure to and understanding of contemporary social issues, and the ways institutions and individuals can affect them. 
  • Develop a better sense of identity and purpose – identifying and enhancing their own interests, values, skills, and abilities.  Learn how to utilize these assets to increase their own learning while contributing to the public good.

Participants in Engage Chicago learn from top Northwestern faculty as well as prominent leaders within the Chicago community.  Students’ experiences in the field will be contextualized by the content and analysis contained in the core Engage Chicago class (CFS 397: Field Studies in Civic Engagement) which meets one morning each week.  The course’s instructor is John "Jody" Kretzmann, a professor in Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy, and director of the internationally renowned Asset-Based Community Development Institute.   

The course offers an opportunity to study the theory and research that underlie the hands-on work students are doing in the field. Course format combines lectures, readings, presentations by local experts, student assignments, class discussions, and field experiences. The course content includes urban studies, contemporary social issues, community development and theories and methods of social change — including an examination of both historical and current issues in Chicago.

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Field Experience

Engage Chicago participants take full advantage of the rich history and vibrant cultural landscape that Chicago has to offer. Experiential education is a key component of the program, with group trips to sites that have played a unique role in the history of social change in Chicago and the nation. Sites for these class visits may include:

  • The southside neighborhood where Barack Obama worked as a community organizer;
  • The community where Martin Luther King, Jr. lived and worked for two of his most challenging years during the civil rights movement; or
  • The "Back of the Yards" neighborhood where Saul Alinsky developed his community organizing theories and practice.

This popular element of Engage Chicago brings to life the issues introduced in the readings and discussed in class.

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Weekly Seminar & Reflection

Students gather weekly to discuss and process their individual and shared experiences. These facilitated discussions are anchored by weekly community dinners, where students and EC staff share a meal prepared by members of the group. These sessions, along with periodic one-on-ones between EC students and program staff, enable participants to make connections between the various program components while also considering the impact of the summer's lessons on themselves and their lives.    

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An Engaged Learning Community

Students in Engage Chicago are choosing to participate in a community learning program.  Not only do students learn on the ground in various Chicago neighborhoods, but they also build and participate in their own learning community with the other students in the program, as well as the EC instructional staff.  To facilitate this powerful, immersive experience, all participants in Engage Chicago are provided an unlimited public transit pass and housed on shared floors in residential facilities of our host campus, the University of Illinois at Chicago, on Chicago's near west side.  Students may choose to live in single or double rooms, but share common spaces to enable support and collaboration in a more relaxed environment.  This community experience is also enhanced by periodic recreational or educational outings around the city, and weekly Sunday night dinners where the group participates in sharing a meal and reflecting on the past and coming program weeks.

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A Typical Week


  Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Morning - internship internship class internship internship -
Afternoon - internship internship Health / Law* field internship -
Evening seminar - - Health/Law* field - -
*Special Concentration Sessions only for students enrolled in the Health or Law Concentration.

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Special Concentrations (optional)

Students interested in health-related fields (medicine, public, health, health policy, etc.) or law-related fields (legal work, public interest law, politics/policy, advocacy, etc.) can enhance their Engage Chicago experience by applying to participate in this special tracks consisting of an additional weekly seminar and field experience focused on related contemporary issues in throughout the city of Chicago.

Click here to learn more about the optional Special Concentration in Health & Medicine.

Click here to learn more about the optional Special Concentration in Law & Advocacy.

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