Urban Immersion introduces incoming Rice students to more than just service work in the city

‘I believe every urban college should have a program like this for incoming students’

This summer, 47 incoming Rice freshmen and one transfer student were introduced to Houston in one of the most immersive ways possible.

During the Center for Civic Leadership’s (CCL) annual weeklong Urban Immersion program, they visited the East End and the Third Ward, Chinatown and Pasadena; they took Metro buses throughout the city to reach each daily destination and slept in downtown’s Christ Church Cathedral each night. Each day was designed to tackle a different social justice issue while taking the students on a tour of their new city: Tuesday’s topic was gentrification and community development during a volunteer shift with the Southeast Houston Transformation Alliance and a tour of Project Row Houses; Wednesday’s visit to Finca Tres Robles and a “toxic tour” of the Second Ward provided by Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) illuminated issues of environmental justice.

Urban Immersion

A Project Row Houses tour led students around the Third Ward. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

At a small park off Lawndale Drive, the freshmen and their program coordinators — Rice students who applied and interviewed for their positions — craned their necks in the July heat as TEJAS tour guides pointed out a scrap metal recycling facility and an acid regeneration plant just steps away from the park and its residential setting. On their way out, students stopped to pick up litter in the park before getting back on the TEJAS van for their next stop — a simple gesture, but one that mattered.

“I was so moved by their determination to start contributing in the most immediate, albeit small, way they could think possible,” said Lovett sophomore Christina Lee, a coordinator who found her own Urban Immersion experience two years ago transformative — in particular the opportunities it afforded her to become a more active citizen in her community and to reflect each evening with others in her small group of incoming freshmen.

“A large part of Urban Immersion is reflection every night,” said Lee. And that Tuesday following the toxic tour, she said, “the discussions and growth I saw that night were so impactful, and students expressing their interest in returning to these communities and organizations reignited my desire to start being more environmentally conscious as well.”

‘One of the most rewarding and challenging endeavors of my life’

Lee was a Girl Scout from kindergarten until eighth grade, the lieutenant governor of her high school’s Key Club and a participant in last year’s Alternative Spring Break trip to Washington, D.C., which focused on reproductive justice. She said that actively contributing to and organizing service events is “extremely familiar.”

Urban Immersion

Tiffany Sloan, center, felt an immediate connection to the Third Ward while visiting local businesses like NuWaters Co-op. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

But Urban Immersion, which is largely student-run with oversight and assistance from the CCL, is a totally different animal. There were dozens of younger students to care for, bus schedules to coordinate with various tour stops and outreach partners and meals to cook each evening.

“The piece that stood out in their year’s sessions compared to prior years was the intensive work the student coordinators put into creating a meaningful arc to the week — connecting each social issue to the next to help the incoming students understand the intersectionality and complexity of the Houston communities they visited,” said Morgan Kinney, assistant director of domestic programs and partnerships who oversees the Alternative Spring Break program.

It wasn’t uncommon for Lee not to be able to shower until 2 a.m. once all of the younger students had finally bedded down at night.

“Coordinating Urban Immersion was both one of the most rewarding and challenging endeavors of my life, to be honest,” said Lee, a social sciences major. It’s a sentiment shared by fellow coordinator Kseniya Anishchenko, a Sid Richardson senior who participated in Urban Immersion in 2015 as an incoming freshman.

“Three years later, it is still my favorite Rice experience because of the important skills and friendships I formed during the week,” said Anishchenko, a biological sciences major. “I believe every urban college should have a program like this for incoming students.”

Using the organization and networking skills she learned in Urban Immersion, Anishchenko helped coordinate Rice’s annual Pancakes for Parkinson’s fundraiser and started her own service club called Rice University Alzheimer’s Buddies in addition to helping coordinate this year’s Urban Immersion program.

And while she was already actively involved in service projects back in high school, Anishchenko said that opportunities like Urban Immersion kicked her passion for volunteering into an even higher gear in college.

“I believe Urban Immersion gives new students essential critical thinking skills that will last them throughout their time at Rice and into their future careers,” said Anishchenko. Like Lee, she also cited the evening reflections as crucial in developing these skills. “Seeing students become more comfortable discussing critical service issues such as gentrification or environmental justice was definitely the highlight of my week.”

‘It was a wake-up call for me’

Incoming freshmen Emma Donnelly and Tiffany Sloan came from Tulsa, Okla., for their weeklong experience. And coming from the second-largest city in her state, Sloan said, “I thought I had a firm understanding of urban centers, specifically those in the American South. I imagined spending a week at Urban Immersion lazily exploring a city would feel all too familiar.”

Urban Immersion

Students also found time to play Frisbee in Emancipation Park, splash around Discovery Green and enjoy slices at Bombay Pizza. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“Luckily,” she laughed, “this was not the case.”

For Sloan and Donnelly, the highlight of their trip was visiting the Third Ward, its small businesses like the NuWaters Co-op on Emancipation Boulevard and the studios and residences of Project Row Houses. “My connection to this location was immediate,” said Sloan. “Walking up to the block of repurposed row houses, I saw a piece of my hometown.”

Donnelly, who hopes to study social policy analysis, also recognized something in the area that reminded her of home.

“Before I came to Urban Immersion, I learned about issues like gentrification and environmental racism, but I was under the impression that they were distant issues that mainly occur in large cities like New York or Houston,” she said. “However, after learning about these problems within neighborhoods that were being impacted, I recognized that these issues were actually occurring in my own hometown. It was a wake-up call for me.”

That night, Donnelly and Sloan eagerly discussed these revelations with others in their small group. “Gentrification, environmental racism and many other social issues can often be confusing or even daunting to discuss,” said Donnelly, but “breaking down these challenging subjects with my peers allowed me to think critically about service in new ways.”

Students visited the Tzu Chi center in Chinatown, where they learned about the NGO's outreach efforts across Houston and the world. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Students visited the Tzu Chi center in Chinatown, where they learned about the NGO’s outreach efforts across Houston and the world. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Also less intimidating now was,returning to matriculate as official Rice students, thanks to Urban Immersion as well. “Because I know about organizations in Houston, I think it will be less daunting to get involved in the Houston community even when I get busy with classes and other first-year-of-college things,” said Donnelly.

Sloan, who plans on studying social policy and political science, agreed. “I feel so much more secure knowing that when I walk onto campus in August I will know 23 other freshmen who are completely willing to just grab a meal with me or take a day trip to a service project,” she said.

But new friends and outreach partners aren’t the only treasured connections Sloan made during Urban Immersion — the invaluable service performed by the student coordinators, who made this entire week possible, was also deeply appreciated.

“At the end of the week, I left feeling like I have a small group of older siblings who will look out for me when I arrive on campus,” she said. “And that is absolutely priceless.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

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