By LINDSAY WELBERS
Some University of Chicago students are petitioning against changes to a competitive internship program that focuses on community building.
Michelle Obama founded Summer Links when she was University Community Service Center (UCSC) director in 1997. This year it began working with Metcalf internships under the Career Advancement department, a move some program alumni say would attempt to fix something that isn’t broken.
Starting this year, Summer Links offers from 25 to 30 undergraduate students a $4,000 stipend for a 10-week internship with a non-profit, government agency or business with a socially conscious element. Historically the group offered 30 students opportunities to work with small non-profits that focus on grassroots organizing in Chicago neighborhoods.
Summer Links had previously been an 11-week-long program.
To combat the changes, students are collecting signatures, saying that they will harm the program and were made without any input from program advocates.
Amy Chan, current director of the UCSC said the goal of the program has not changed and that it will continue “to develop opportunities for students in the College to pursue their passions for public service, community-building and social justice.”
Chan explained that the changes will expand the types of organizations the students work with, but that the goal remains the same.
“This year, our commitment to social justice is demonstrated by placing students in internships that span not-for-profit, government and private. Summer Links will continue its tradition of substantive internships that give students in the College the chance to pursue their passions for public service, community-building and social justice, in the context of an energized group of peers learning about ways to address complex social issues,” Chan said.
Students who had previously completed the Summer Links program were eligible to work as program coordinators in the following years. Former Summer Links director Trudi Langendorf said program coordinators will be graduate students and not necessarily former Summer Link students.
“The new plan as it’s being presented is that no undergraduates will be hired as Program coordinators. Graduate students will have those positions, and they will not need to have participated in the program in previous years. This sets up a hierarchy that is in total opposition to the essence of the program, which does not judge the value of contribution based on age,” Langendorf said.
The competitive program always offered spaces to 30 students, Langendorf said, but this year as few as 25 will be accepted.
“With an applicant pool of 140-185 applicants each year in the past it makes sense to NOT scale down the # of students participating,” Langendorf said in an e-mail.
When the program was restructured Langendorf’s position was eliminated with it and the programs she oversaw were moved to different departments.
“I found it very disturbing and strange that Summer Links was not placed under the social justice arm of the new structuring, as it is the most intensely focused ‘social justice’ program that UCSC has been running since its inception in 1997,” Langendorf said. She was told that a Masters Degree in Business Administration would now be required for the job she had previously held.
“Up until and including my last day of employment I was praised for my good work,” Langendorf said. In spring 2013 she was awarded the Marlene F. Richman Award, which recognizes U. of C. staff who show exemplary commitment to the students.
Michaeljit Sandhu was a program coordinator before he graduated from the U. of C. in 2013. He initially applied to work with Summer Links after his first year at the college. He initially wanted to study education but was pushed out of his comfort zone when he landed an internship at the Metropolitan Tenant Organization, studying fair housing.
“Summer Links totally changed what I was interested in,” Sandhu said. He now works with public and subsidized housing at the Chicago Housing Initiative.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it became just a career advancement program or if the focus on community or critical engagement was totally lost,” Sandhu said.
Sue Avila had worked with the Summer Links students at Cook County Hospital in previous years and said the interns do vital work for the hospital. She worries that if the program’s focus shifts too much towards for-profit businesses or larger non-profits that its affect on the community will be lessened.
Students she worked with at the hospital organized a violence prevention fair and put together a violence prevention resource sheet that is distributed to families and patients.
The petition can be viewed at thepetitionsite.com/773/380/023/save-summer-links.