Rice students pay it forward as Urban Immersion hosts its largest cohort yet

The wildly popular program doubled its capacity this year, reaching nearly 10 percent of incoming freshmen

Urban Immersion is one of the most popular programs offered by Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership (CCL), a weeklong dive into Houston for incoming freshmen and transfer students before their first semester. Over the course of six jam-packed days, students are introduced to the city’s social issues through the community partners who address them. There is always a waitlist — and it is always long.

Urban Immersion introduces incoming students to Houston's social issues through the community partners who address them, such as Plant It Forward Farms. (Photos by Tomy LaVergne)

Urban Immersion introduces incoming students to Houston’s social issues through the community partners who address them, such as Plant It Forward Farms. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

This year, for the first time, Urban Immersion doubled the number of freshmen it served, from 48 to 96. But retaining a manageable number of students per session was a must. That required four Urban Immersion camps to run concurrently over a period of just two weeks, with vans full of freshmen crisscrossing the city for everything from weed-pulling at Plant It Forward Farms to a walking tour of Montrose.

And because the camps are almost entirely run by students, that meant even more upperclassmen returning to campus ahead of the fall semester to lead sessions for the freshmen they were welcoming to the city.

But for students like Sid Richardson College junior Alison Drileck, signing up was a simple act of paying it forward — and service, after all, is what Urban Immersion and the CCL are all about.

“Urban Immersion was one of the most meaningful experiences that I had during my freshman year,” Drileck said. Not only did it connect her with the resources of the CCL, she said, it gave her an instant sense of community at her new school.

“I felt like I had friendly faces no matter where I went on campus, and that was so meaningful for me,” said Drileck, who also served this year as an O-Week Peer Academic Advisor at Sid Rich. “I wanted to be able to provide that sense of belonging to other students here at Rice. I couldn’t imagine what my first year of Rice would have been without Urban Immersion.”

Because the program captures students before they commit to classes and other extracurricular activities, Drileck said, introducing them to the different ways they can become involved with their community raises the likelihood they’ll make service beyond the hedges a priority in their Rice experience.

New freshmen got to know Memorial Park on a morning walking tour with Memorial Park Conservancy guides. (Photo by Katharine Shilcutt)

New freshmen got to know Memorial Park on a morning walking tour with Memorial Park Conservancy guides. (Photo by Katharine Shilcutt)

“So many students expressed to me that they learned so much about the Houston community that they will call their home over the next few years, whether they were from across the country or just around the corner,” Drileck said. “The participants were also so eager to hear about other programs that the CCL offers, such as the Leadership Rice Mentorship Experience program or the Certificate in Civic Leadership, which is a true testament to their interest in continuing their involvement in critical service.”

Serving the community was also important for fellow coordinator Sam Holloway, a Brown College junior who participated in Urban Immersion as a freshman and met some of his closest friends that week. Holloway credits the Urban Immersion experience with setting the stage for his own extracurricular involvement at Rice, where he’s served in such varied capacities as Honor Council internal vice chair and Brown College eco-rep.

“I wanted to create an experience for this year’s incoming students that was just as good as my own while also helping to grow and improve UI as it became a bigger and better program than ever before,” Holloway said.

In addition to renting more vans and recruiting more student coordinators, that meant expanding and refining the Urban Immersion curriculum to include interactive workshops about topics such as critical service, privilege and identity.

“These changes mean we’re now putting on a more educational, well-rounded program that also reaches a significantly larger number of students than before,” Holloway said.

And the results? Overwhelming, he said.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry — several times — reading their notes to me,” Holloway said, describing how students praised the program and its leaders for providing support and guidance during a pivotal time of transition in their lives.

Service projects across the city included helping out on an urban farm.

Service projects across the city included helping out on an urban farm. (Photo by Tommy LaVergne)

“Without this experience, I would surely have fallen flat on my face upon arriving at Rice,” read one of the student’s notes. “But you have invigorated me with a yet undying confidence that I hope drives the next four years of growth and development.”

Holloway said he learned just as much as the students he worked with, including how to perfectly parallel park a 15-passenger van.

Drileck and Holloway both credit Urban Immersion with helping them grow as leaders. That’s what happens when you tackle the sorts of issues that arise when you’re trying to shepherd 50 freshmen onto a light rail train for a trip to Discovery Green or the kinds of tough questions that emerge after an afternoon spent with United Against Human Trafficking.

“I began the summer worried about all of the ‘what ifs,’” Drileck said. Today, however, she said she’s learned to adapt easily to plans that go awry, finding and creating solutions rather than getting stuck on the problem, and how to communicate much more fluidly.

“I feel empowered to share the knowledge I have gained about the issues I am passionate about while reflecting on the experiences that have brought me to this point,” she said. “As a student preparing to begin the capstone for the Certificate in Civic Leadership in the fall, I feel much more prepared to take the next step within the CCL and create change.

“However, most importantly, I gained almost a hundred new friends that I am so excited to have join the Rice community,” she said.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.