Houston is a city unlike any other — a city that has become a symbol of innovation, progress and globalization. At the heart of that city, Rice University stands as a testament to the hard work and revolutionary thought upon which the city thrives. But to leave the story there is to tell a half-truth, to paint a partial portrait of a city whose identity is swathed in layers of success and strife.
Urban Immersion, a Rice Community Involvement Center (CIC) program, has introduced incoming freshmen and transfer students to the “reality” of Houston for more than a decade. The program is an intensive, service-learning experience that provides students with a better understanding of the urban issues, social needs and cultural diversity that are so often ignored or misunderstood both within the city limits and beyond.
Each summer, two sessions hosting a total of 48 incoming students are facilitated by six Rice undergraduate students and supported by two staff members. Urban Immersion connects with 20 service agencies around the metro area that focus on issues ranging from homelessness and hunger to workers’ rights, addiction recovery, education disparities, habitat conservation, urban pollution and domestic abuse. The teams of students are given an orientation at each agency that outlines the problem, the impact that problem has on both a personal and societal level and the measures by which the agency is attempting to overcome the issue — from root causes to sustainable solutions. Each day, students take part in direct service projects and, in doing so, gain a greater understanding of both the issues and the world of nonprofit and service-driven organizations. Students learn to see service not as penance but as a mutually beneficial and rewarding experience crucial to their development as active citizens and invested members of a global city.
In addition to service projects, students get a taste of all that Houston has to offer, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Art Car Museum, outdoor theater and international folk dancing. Students learn about the patchwork of neighborhoods that gives Houston its unique flavor, from the neighborhoods’ demographic breakdown to the endearing quirks that make each of them distinctive. In navigating the public transportation system, students learn firsthand the freedom that system allows them in gaining greater access to the city beyond the Rice campus.
Possibly the greatest advantage of Urban Immersion is the opportunity it affords students to make lifelong connections with civic-minded and compassion-driven peers. “The relationships they form at Urban Immersion span their time at Rice and encourage collaboration and mutual support for projects that address social concerns in Houston and around the world,” said Mac Griswold, CIC director. Urban Immersion students leave the program with a hunger to know the city, a drive to connect their passions with the skills and knowledge they will gain at Rice, and the support of a university that understands and appreciates the value of civic engagement and leadership.
Read more about Urban Immersion in the fall issue of Rice magazine at http://issuu.com/riceuniversity/docs/ricemagazinefall2013/18.