Connie Chi

connie-chi

The student to the left of the picture is one of my students I had the privilege of working with during my first year in City Year. Earlier this month, he graduated in the top 10 of his class and earned a scholarship to DePaul University.) ~ Connie Chi

What was your class year and major/minor?

I graduated in 2010 with a major in Psychology and minor in Sociology. 

What is your current job, and city of residence?

I work as a Program Coordinator for a nonprofit called Chicago Cares in the city of...you guessed it, Chicago! We are a volunteer service organization that partners with community-based organizations across the city to create volunteer opportunities for Chicagoans. Our volunteers find various ways to serve with us, but more importantly, we help meet the needs of CBOs who don't have the capacity to manage volunteers on their own. Chicago Cares provides 250 volunteer programs every month, all year round in various issue areas ranging from adult education to homelessness to environmental/urban gardens. By providing these volunteer opportunities, we are able to mobilize citizens across Chicago to become engaged with the community while making a meaningful difference through volunteerism. 

Did your academic or extracurricular experience at Bowdoin influence how you are involved in communities now? If yes, how so?

Absolutely-- I wouldn't be where I am today without the experiences I had at Bowdoin. Bowdoin provided meaningful spaces and dialogue in both the academic and extracurricular frameworks that solidified my passion for serving the common good. 

During my senior year, I took the Maine Social Research course with Professor McEwen. We researched social issues, such as public housing, public education, and federal aid programs, and examined how these issues affected our own home communities as well as the community of Brunswick. When it came time to study Brunswick, my group and I focused on Section 8 housing and interviewed local people to learn about their experiences using Section 8 vouchers. That was my first time talking to anybody about Section 8 and the difficulties in finding affordable housing. Through the interviews we conducted and the reflections we had, that class helped put things in perspective for me and forced me to check my privilege as I saw our own college town deeply affected by these social issues. 

The McKeen Center and its Alternative Spring Break program also had a huge influence. I was lucky enough to do a service trip every year I was at Bowdoin and I learned so much from each of those trips. One of the most vivid memories I remember was my junior year trip to Lima, Peru. For a week, my team worked with a shantytown community just outside the bustling city of Lima and helped build a 100-ft staircase. I didn't understand the importance of the staircase until I got to know the community better. The shantytown was located on hills and the people who lived there didn't have a good way of getting across town. By building the staircase, we were able to provide safe access from the bottom of the hills to the top. 

There has to be a deep and genuine understanding of the needs and motivations of the people you are working with-- you cannot do effective work otherwise. I learned that lesson early on at Bowdoin and it has guided the work I’ve done since my time at Bowdoin.

In what ways have you been engaged with the community since graduating from Bowdoin (both professionally and personally)?

I've had incredible opportunities to do amazing work through my jobs in Chicago. In City Year, I got to work in the Garfield Park and Englewood communities and came to know those two communities intimately as I invested my time, energy, and efforts in building relationships there. Through my current role at Chicago Cares, I get to manage 30+ programs all over the West Side of Chicago and have constant communication with various community partners across the city. 


In my free time, I serve on the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless' Youth Committee. Most recently, I got trained to be a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for foster children in Cook County. I work with two beautiful children who have unfortunately been placed in the foster care system and work to make sure that their needs are met and advocate for their best interest.

What's been your favorite or most meaningful experience in public service since you graduated?

Immediately following my graduation from Bowdoin, I moved to Chicago to serve two years with an AmeriCorps program called City Year. City Year is a national service organization that places young people in underresourced schools to mentor and tutor students and ultimately, reduce the high school dropout rate. We mainly focused our initiatives around improving our students' attendance, behavior, and grades because those were the primary indicators of students at risk of not completing high school. 

During my first year with City Year, I was placed at a high school on the West Side of Chicago and worked with an English class of 9th graders who were reading at the 1st and 2nd grade level. It was appalling to me that some of my students could barely get through a page of a picture book without assistance. My team and I showed up every day for ten months ready to work and by the end of the year, our students improved in all three areas (attendance, behavior, and grades). My team and I were determined to make an impact and we did. That was four years ago and this past June, I was able to attend our students' high school graduation and watch 126 of our former students walk across the stage to receive their high school diplomas. I have never been more proud of anyone's accomplishments; their success felt like my success and I'm so thankful to have been a small part of their journeys. 

Have any unexpected challenges or difficulties related to this work popped up along the way? If so, what did you learn from these challenges?

For me, the biggest challenge in this kind of work is feeling like your impact is not great or good enough-- it can be really overwhelming. However, through the years, I've had to learn the importance of living in both the world as it is and the world as it should be. I have to approach a situation understanding and acknowledging the reality of the way things are and how unfair that is, but balance that with my hope for things to be better and working toward the common good. It's easy to focus on the negatives and feel helpless, but I now celebrate the small wins.

What advice do you have for students who want to work for the common good after Bowdoin?

Network, network, network. That's good advice for any career field, but especially those working to progress the field of social good. It only benefits you to know people. I remember being told the importance of network, but in the past four years of being in the nonprofit field in Chicago, I've realized that knowing people is how you get your foot in the door. It also makes it easier to get things done. The more people you know, the more resources you have at your disposal! Bowdoin is so great because it provides so many different opportunities for you to network! Learn while you can, attend as many events/sessions as possible, and you'll be better off than most people when you graduate.