Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My Urban Studies Journey: Part III

I didn’t hear of Wheaton until October of my senior year, just in time for the early acceptance application deadline. It was a connection weekend; my father and I spent a few short hours in the city of Big Shoulders. I fell in love.

Okay, that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration and I feel slightly like I’m writing an overly mushy engagement announcement. Nevertheless, Chicago was a significant part of the reason I chose to attend Wheaton. And every subsequent trip I took downtown once I got to campus solidified my fascination with the Windy City. So when I heard about the Wheaton-in-Chicago program in chapel freshman year I knew immediately it was something I should do – or at least consider. Then plans for a Master’s in Teaching, med school and finally an IDS double major in Asian Studies sent Chicago to sit in the reservoirs of my brain for the next few years. Latent though it was, the seed remained.
During parts of freshman and sophomore year I attended Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago. I loved the opportunity to drive into Chicago every Sunday, feel the attraction of the city the moment I spotted the Sears Tower and the Hancock building and drive down Lower Wacker feeling like I was in the Batmobile with Christian Bale. Eventually I grew to appreciate the neighborhood of Uptown just as equally. Though at the time I didn’t realize why it felt so different from the rest of the city, I think I appreciated Uptown precisely because it wasn’t the financial district. I didn’t feel the pressure to shop, to spend countless amounts of money to become something that I wasn’t. And my experience at UBC was so different than my experiences at any other church – I guess you could say at suburban churches in general – but at the time I couldn’t have told you exactly why.
Over those two years I traveled into the city every time I could: I relished public transportation, walking amidst hordes upon hordes of people hustling in every direction to endless possibilities of appointments or activities. Since I got to spend so much time in Uptown I soon got bored with the “main drags” (Michigan Ave and State St) and wanted to begin exploring the neighborhoods. Trouble was, I didn’t know where to start. Because I didn’t know too much about the city it intimidated me –it felt like an endless grid of streets with rows upon rows of apartment buildings and infinite opportunities to get lost and, naturally, mugged – or worse, abducted. So I stayed in the little part of Chicago I knew – the Loop and the route between the Congress and the UBC parking lot – and accepted that I knew all I was going to know about Chicago.
In the fall of junior year a few of my good friends mentioned that they were applying to Wheaton-in-Chicago. “What? Oh yea, I remember hearing about that freshman year!” I’d heard allusions to the program at UBC as well because at that time the WIC buildings were basically next-door, but it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I should seriously consider applying until that fall. I knew the program would be something I’d enjoy but I resisted applying because I thought since my friends had already expressed interest that I would be doing because they were – definitely not the right reason to do anything that involves displacing myself for an entire semester. Eventually the desire to apply kept nagging at me until I went into the office, took an application, filled it out, and handed it right back within the hour. All that was left of the process was to wait.
And wait. The number of applications was, for the first time, larger than the space available. I suddenly got nervous that I wasn’t WIC material, that I was doing the program for the wrong reasons. On the application there was a box next to Urban Studies Certificate: preference was given to those planning getting the certificate. My box was checked – I really wanted to get into the program. I would figure out if I would actually finish the program at a later time. Finally, by spring break, ten of my good friends and I were accepted into the program. The members of the cohort I didn’t know personally I knew through mutual friends. My WIC experience was shaping up to be a good time.
The diversity discussions I tried so hard to avoid became unavoidable when I enrolled in the Chicago class in the spring of my junior year. I was taking Nazi Germany at the same time, and the racial issues present in our discussions and readings concerning the Holocaust echoed the themes of my Chicago class readings. In my journal at the time I wrote:

Is there a situation or an issue like [the Holocaust] in my life where, looking back on it, I will wonder how I ignored that injustice? Learning about racism last night in Chicago class just makes me think more about my role in racial issues and how I look at these issues. What sort of role do I play as a white privileged Christian? Are my feelings of reverse discrimination valid? Are they ridiculous? Are they godly? Is my anger at my guilty feelings holy? Or is that guilt from God?

Little did I know those questions would persist throughout my time at WIC, and that they are still left unanswered. What is obvious to me, however, is that I began to think more seriously, more maturely, and less defensively about these issues than I did when I was a freshman faced with a deluge of propaganda from Solidarity Cabinet.

When I thought about WIC the summer before I did the program, I thought about my internship. I thought about what kind of internship I wanted, how to look for those internships, how to write a cover letter, if my resume was good enough – but most of all I thought about how, as August rushed closer, I didn’t have an internship. Looking back, I appreciate the fact that I had to learn how to write a resume and a cover letter that summer: it made applying to jobs after graduation much easier. I also learned networking skills – finding possible internship opportunities through positions for which I had already applied but had been rejected. The process of finding the internship, though it was stressful as it got down to the wire, was a valuable experience that helped prepare me for my life post-graduation.
At the beginning of the summer I found an internship opportunity at the Chicago History Museum. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for me – in the field of history, in the career path I was interested in pursuing (museum studies), and it could involve either administration or exhibit design, both activities I could envision myself doing for my career. It seemed perfect. And, in truth, it probably was. But the museum took so long to get back to me that I ended up taking a position at the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. It was difficult for me to take that position in part because it didn’t seem as glamorous as the CHM, but it sounded like they needed my help and at the time I was anxious to have a firm commitment. Once I had my internship confirmed and I was finally ready to begin thinking about my expectations for the rest of the program, it was time to fly to Chicago.
In the months leading up to my WIC semester I didn’t have a clear grasp on what I should expect from the program. Because I knew so many of the other participants I was excited to share my “apartment in the city” with five of my closest girl friends. I was excited to be close to all of the familiar restaurants I had visited frequently via the Metra on the weekends while at Wheaton with my friends and other WIC participants Chris and Drew. I was excited at the prospects of exploring the neighborhoods and finding new, “hip,” off-the-beaten-track restaurants and coffee shops that would ultimately make me feel like a true urbanite. I didn’t really know what to expect from the classes I would be taking. Beyond the internship – a tangible, controllable aspect of the program – and with whom I would be living, I had no idea what to expect. And because I couldn’t control it, I just chose not to think about it. I’ve learned it’s a lot easier for me to wrap my head around such ambiguity in my life if I just pretend it’s not there.

1 comment:

Maggie Emma Thomas said...

Dear Ashley:

I realize that this is a busy time for us all, and I further realize that you are currently in Hawaii and having way too much fun to be blogging, but might I suggest that you continue your blog this summer? Because I really enjoy reading your thoughts, and you're always so intelligent in that insightful way.

I hope this is not too much to ask.

Also I love you.