When the Union Paciﬁc West Line train pulled into the Elmhurst commuter station at 9:13 one morning last August, its doors opened onto a scene that left even its normally unﬂappable conductors a bit astounded. There on the platform, waiting to board, were about 200 Elmhurst College students.
They had come to the train station as part of an annual new student orientation event called the Chicago Excursion, a chance for new students to get to know one another while exploring Elmhurst’s broad-shouldered neighbor to the east.
“It’s one of our most popular events,” says Desiree Collado, assistant to the dean of students and director of student success at the College. “It ﬁlls up almost as soon as students can sign up for it. We reserve our own car on the train, so the conductors know we’re coming; but you should see their eyes go wide when the doors open and they see all of us waiting on the platform.”
It’s not every day that you’ll ﬁnd a throng of undergraduates at the station waiting to catch a Chicago-bound train; but for more and more students, trips to the city have become a vital part of the Elmhurst Experience. Downtown Chicago is, after all, just thirty-three minutes away by train, so students can ﬁnd a world-class array of cultural, educational, and professional opportunities within easy reach. They head into the Loop for internships, to Lincoln Park and Bucktown for concerts and plays, to Chinatown and Pilsen and Devon Avenue for a world’s worth of dining choices, and to tourist meccas like Navy Pier and the Museum Campus just to see the sights. A few move to the big city for a few months to live, work, and study with students from other institutions as part of a program called Chicago Semester. It’s as if the College has a big, bustling, internationally renowned branch campus sixteen miles away.
“We encourage students to go to the city early and often,” says Alzada Tipton, the vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. “We want to help them understand that an internship for any career they have ever contemplated—not to mention for all those careers they haven’t heard of—is available in the city. We also make the point that living next to one of the best big cities in the U.S. tremendously increases their quality of life.”
The Chicago Excursion is just the ﬁrst of many ways Elmhurst students can engage the big city. For many out-of-state students, and for a surprising number of those from surrounding suburbs, the trip serves as an introduction to Chicago and a kind of supervised rehearsal for later expeditions on their own.
“Some students are too unfamiliar or intimidated by Chicago to seek out all the learning, cultural, and employment opportunities it offers,” says Tipton. “We’re working to change this. We encourage these students by taking them to the city a number of times, especially when they’re new to the College. We show them how to use the train, the bus, the El.”
“It’s our job to get them out there, to expose them to the possibilities,” says Collado.
In a ﬁrst-year seminar called “Exploring Chicago,” students are asked to engage the city as a text to be read and analyzed. They use Chicago as a lens to explore a range of academic topics. “We want them to understand the choices that go into the built environment of a city, and what those choices can tell us about its underlying philosophy,” says Mary Kay Mulvaney, the director of the Honors Program.
First, though, the students need to learn how to get around. Maps of Chicago and its public transit system top the list of required course materials. One of the ﬁrst assignments is to break up into teams to locate, explore, and write about neighborhoods and landmarks like Hyde Park, Little Italy, Millennium Park, and Hull House. By the end of the term, the students are recommending hidden urban gems to their classmates. “I’m amazed at how adventurous and imaginative they can be,” Mulvaney says.
Some students don’t need all that much encouragement to seek out urban attractions. Michael Manocchio, a third-year theatre major, says he chose to enroll at Elmhurst because the proximity of the peaceful campus to the boisterous city oFFered “the best of both worlds.” He regularly hops on the train to work as an usher at the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Court theaters, jobs that allow him to see some outstanding productions and to get a behind-the-scenes view of the theater business. If the weather’s nice, he packs up his schoolwork and ﬁnds a sunny spot in a park to do his reading. “I think of myself as an experiential learner,” says Manocchio. “To be able to do this much and see this much, all so easily—it’s a wonderful thing. I consider it at least half of my education.”
For those who can’t get enough of the city, the Chicago Semester program offers a chance to combine internships, academic work, and urban adventure. Students live in the city, sharing an apartment with students from other colleges and universities, attending courses and seminars, and working at an internship that matches their career interests. “For some students, it’s almost like studying abroad,” says Annie Bjustrom of Chicago Semester. “They learn to live independently and get work experience. It’s an eye-opening experience, and it’s great on the résumé.”
As Manocchio points out, Elmhurst students have another good reason to check out Chicago: for the fun of it. “We carpool or take the train and meet up,” he says. “It’s a great city. I think everyone should use it.”
If enough of his classmates take his advice, the conductors on the Union Paciﬁc West Line will have to get used to platforms full of students.