As we come to the end of a unique Spring Quarter, let us take a look at the ways our Harris community came together despite challenging circumstances and geographic distance, part of our series exploring Harris at home.  

After the Keller Center emptied out following the conclusion of Winter Quarter, Spring Quarter began at home. Throughout an unprecedented transition to virtual learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the sense of community that characterizes the Harris School of Public Policy has remained.

Students were invited to join Kate Shannon Biddle, the Dean of Students, for coffee and conversation (virtually). Harris Policy Lab students hosted virtual lunch-and-learns. Dr. Anant Sudarshan, South Asia Director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), hosted a screening and Q&A about a documentary he co-produced, Aayi Gayi.

There have been happy hours and Harris Student Organization “After Hours” game nights, too.

And, amidst the usual weekly updates about virtual event opportunities, faculty research, and policy in the news, students have been invited to share snapshots of their lives in quarantine.

The weekly Harris newsletter began to feature recurring “Pets of Harris” submissions, and students have been asked for their best quarantine recipes. As for at-home entertainment, Aliya Bean, MPP Class of 2021, recommends Duo Lipa’s new album, Future Nostalgia, full of upbeat bops that will “immediately lighten your mood and get you dancing.” Ishan Nagpal, MPP Class of 2021, is reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber and says it is a "fascinating historical account about the role money and debt plays as both a societal adhesive and disrupter.”

Terri Brady conducts a webinar for Harris alums.
Terri Brady conducts a webinar for Harris alums.

“I think we've been able to continue to foster a sense of community, even though our environments are quite varied across the board for students and staff alike,” said Nichole Horn, a member of the Student Affairs team and academic advisor to MPP and MA students. “We've taken some of our traditional programming and have been able to transfer that to a virtual environment to maintain some consistency for our students while so many things are up in the air.”

The newly launched “Not Another Zoom Meeting” programming, to offer one example, is an opportunity for students to dig deeper into episodes of the biweekly Not Another Politics Podcast, co-hosted by Harris School of Public Policy Professors William Howell, Anthony Fowler, and Wioletta Dziuda.

“We had Anthony Fowler come on and have an informal conversation with students instead of presenting a lecture,” Horn said. “It generated communication on policy questions among the students, as well. “It's been very fruitful.”

Not Another Politics Podcast hosts William Howell, Anthony Fowler, and Wioletta Dziuda with producer Matt Hodapp – recording remotely.

Michael Belsky, AM’83, Executive Director of the Center for Municipal Finance at Harris, teaches a course on the fundamentals of municipal bonds. He’s started ending every class with a song to help cheer people up and keep spirits high as class discussions have inevitably been tinged by the realities of the coronavirus and its effects on different states’ economies.

One recent song selection, “The Weight” by The Band, spoke to globalism and helping each other out in a time of need.

“Take a load off, Fanny
And (and) (and) you put the load right on me
(You put the load right on me)”

While many of the decisions around programming beyond the Spring and Summer Quarters will depend on decisions made by the University and the realities on the ground, the Student Affairs team is prepared to continue taking any and all events “online” as needed.

Second year student orientation leaders will still be assigned to incoming cohorts of first year students come September. Brandon Kurzweg, Assistant Dean of Students, Student Life, said that regardless of what happens, student orientation leaders will still be there as a support resource for incoming students as they participate in all the orientation programming and informal community building.

“Student orientation leaders are influential in the crafting of what the student experience will be like,” said Kurzweg. “I think that will be much more relevant this year, especially if we are in a more virtual environment. Orientation leaders will be able to share their experiences thus far during distance learning—what has worked well for them, what has not worked well? How has it been managing their personal and professional lives mixing together? They're going to be able to provide even more support structure this year, given the circumstances, than in past years.”

Krisinda Doherty and the Evening Master's Program
Krisinda Doherty and the Evening Master's Program

Connection amongst cohorts has become all the more relevant across the Harris community, particularly for students enrolled in the Evening Master’s Program at Harris.

“It's difficult for Evening Master’s Program students to be able to attend and interact with full time students even when we're live,” said Krisinda Doherty, the Evening Master’s Program Director. “But this move to our online format makes those opportunities to get our different populations together easier.”

The Evening Master’s Program created special community-building opportunities two times per month.

“Many of our students have families at home, but probably just as many are by themselves right now,” Doherty said.

On Monday, May 11, in collaboration with Michelle Hoereth, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Harris Public Policy, the Evening Master’s Program hosted its annual Diversity Dinner virtually, BYOD style – bring your own dinner.

“With the move to remote learning, we didn't want to lose that opportunity to engage our alumni and to start to make connections for students with the folks that charted the past,” Doherty said. “We hosted via Zoom and used the breakout room functionality to pair up alumni and students.”

Eric Reyes, MA Class of 2020, said he was happy to have the chance to “attend” the dinner. He kept it simple with his BYOD — a PB&J paired with a bag of Doritos after wrapping up virtual work for the day.

“I don't get to attend a whole lot on campus since events happen during the day and often I can't make it to Hyde Park in time from work,” Reyes said. “Even virtually, I am glad we decided to do this dinner because it reinforced why I fight for equity. It motivated me to keep learning about other people.

“Too often, diversity is given lip service,” Reyes added. “It’s a shame, because we miss out on so much when we don't make true, concerted efforts to reach out and include a variety of perspectives. I feel like this dinner was an example of us making that effort.”

Attendees — from current and past cohorts — were grouped into breakout rooms according to their areas of policy interest.

“If I was at an in-person dinner, I probably would have spoken with people in close proximity and there would have been 2-3 discussions happening all at once,” Reyes said. “Since we could see everyone in the same Zoom call, everyone had a voice in the same conversation.”

The Pearson Fellows and Pearson Scholars programs, which supports students enrolled in the Master of Public Policy program and PhD students with conflict-focused research agendas, hosted a mixer for current students, alumni, and incoming fellows and scholars in early May. While he would have enjoyed an in-real-life event, incoming student Alejandro Roemer, MPP Class of 2022, said the online format offered real benefits.

Pearson Fellows and friends.

“We were able to meet former Pearson Fellows, not only current ones,” Roemer said. “It became clear to me from observing the current and former fellows’ interactions that the Pearson community transcends one's time at the University of Chicago.

“The virtual format forces everyone to be engaged in a single conversation,” he added. “It has the upside of allowing you to meet everyone– something that would rarely occur at a physical reunion where people tend to cluster into smaller groups.”

The Civic Leadership Academy has also shifted gears.

Many of the program’s current fellows work in sectors directly impacted by the new realities of COVID-19. The pandemic has made the urgency of their work as Chicago nonprofit and government leaders even more important.

“The program was very intentionally designed seven years ago to build out the civic infrastructure of the City of Chicago,” said Sadia Sindhu, the Executive Director of the Center for Effective Government, which administers the CLA program. “Our fellows are in important positions of public and community trust,” Sindhu said, especially in light of the coronavirus outbreak. “They're making difficult decisions with very little information. And it's not easy. It's hard, and it's stressful.”

CLA fellows participate in a Zoom call as a part of the COVID Civic Collaboratory series.

To help fellows stay connected to each other, the CLA staff began hosting town hall-style virtual “Civic Collaboratory” sessions. CLA fellows and previous cohort alumni present during these meetings on the organizational challenges they're facing and utilize their peers’ expertise to talk about solutions to the unprecedented issues confronting the city. 

“I was getting so many calls from CLA fellows asking, 'Hey, how can I leverage the CLA community for this?'" Sindhu said. “The sort of things that they were grappling with were very immediate. It occurred to me that we should take the Civic Collaboratory model that we've been doing in class (for current fellows) and scale it up very quickly for the purposes of addressing some of these (new) challenges for the entire CLA alumni community.”

After the first session, the demand was so high that CLA hosted one every night for one week. After that initial week, the group has continued to meet on a weekly basis. To date, the CLA Collaboratory sessions have engaged over 200 attendees in nearly 20 presentations on a variety of topics.

Conversations have examined internet access for low-income individuals, racial equity in health care, resources for virtual learning in CPS, building and maintaining essential employee satisfaction and wellness, updates on new judicial system processes in a virtual time, and many others.  

“When we were…told that we needed to stay at home, we reached out to our fellows to let them know our plan,” Sindhu said. “We wanted to make sure they felt supported and were relying on each other, because the reality is that our fellows are the ones who are making decisions across the city and county.”