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Students enjoy "Livin’ for the city" of Chicago

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- I thought I knew what to expect from the Windy City. Little did I know the surprises the Urban Life Center (ULC) in Chicago would have for me. From January 4-25, I was thrown out of my comfort zone and challenged in many unexpected ways. ULC is a program that helps small town students like me get to know the life and the inner workings of the big city. The ULC is located in the middle of Hyde Park, a fairly safe and respectable neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Students are placed in random apartments with other ULC students and given job placements throughout the city. With a wide range of interests and majors, we had commutes lasting from 15 minutes to two hours.

Each of us worked at our assigned placements for seven days out of the three weeks. Many of us were placed in South Side schools, while others were in office settings and a few were thrown into other obscure working situations. My job placement was at the Merit School of Music, an after-school/Saturday program for students throughout the city. I worked in the office, sending out mailings, calling business for donations and talking with the staff.

In 1979, Chicago cut fine arts in the public schools, from elementary school to junior high. In response, Alice Pfaelzer and Emma Endres Kountz founded the Merit School of Music. In the beginning, Merit was located in borrowed space at Roosevelt University. As Merit kept growing, it also kept relocating to larger and larger buildings.

Last June, Merit moved into its own facility, the Joy Faith Knapp Music Center in the West Loop--as I soon discovered, right in the heart of Chicago’s Greektown. The new center has classrooms for theory classes, larger rehearsal halls, a Clavinova piano lab, an instrument storage room, a music library, a 372-seat concert hall and even a recording studio. Merit now reaches over 6,500 students and is supported by Emanuel Ax, Andre Watts and Yo-Yo Ma.

While I worked at Merit, I was able to walk up or down any street and there would be a Greek restaurant. I had Greek almost every day I was at my placement site. Coming back from that, I’ve discovered massive cravings for Greek food--luckily, there is a really good Greek restaurant in Wichita.

After my experience at Merit, I realized I was not fit for an office setting. However, I hope to someday be involved in a program like the Merit School of Music, even if it is just as a supporter.

Along with our job placements, ULC split the 31 students into two classes, Urban Diversity and City Arts. Urban Diversity focused more on the politics of Chicago and how they affect the South side. City Arts focuses more on the arts and how they are expressed throughout the city. In being a part of the City Arts class, I had the pleasure of visiting Chicago area artists and discovering some of the city’s hidden gifts.

One of the artists we visited with was Milton Mizenburg. His artwork was carved out of trees or stumps. He displays it in the neighborhood where he lives. He helped to change the neighborhood from being a dangerous place no one wanted to walk through because of the gangs to a quiet, clean neighborhood where the people were friendly. (You can read more and see examples on their website.)

In so many ways, the ULC program touched me. It helped me discover many of my strengths and even more of my weaknesses. With all the activities crammed into a three weeks, it was difficult to absorb it all. If given the chance, I would go back for a longer time. As Stevie Wonder so eloquently states, after my experience through the Urban Life Center in Chicago, I’m definitely "livin’ for the city."

The students who participated in the Urban Life Center interterm were Nathan Eigsti, junior from Hesston, Anna Lever, freshman from Moundridge, and Emma Lewis, junior from Newton.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at

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