The Catalyst Semester program is part of North Park University’s curriculum combining classroom and experiential learning. Here, Provost Emerson shares thoughts on the background and nature of this semester-long urban cohort program.
What was the thinking behind launching the Catalyst Semester?
I believe it’s important to find meaningful ways to engage North Park students with the world around them—but also to bridge the gap between theory and practice. There’s plenty of valuable learning happening in the classroom, but with North Park situated in Chicago, it’s a terrific opportunity for students to get to know the city and our world on a much deeper level.
What is the Catalyst Semester concept?
The concept is likened to study abroad, where students have the opportunity to learn about something entirely new in a hands-on experiential learning format. The program taps into the city right here, and engages our students in a unique way not found in the classroom.
Will it take longer to complete my undergraduate degree?
The curriculum is designed to work in conjunction with meeting general education requirements, so there is no time lost in completing your degree.
What does the Catalyst Semester curriculum entail?
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the cohort takes classes together on campus. The curriculum is designed around best practices of educational goals—both in-the-classroom academic and hands-on experiential learning—and each course is focused in some way on Chicago. On Mondays and Fridays, the students spend time in their assigned nonprofit organizations, organizations striving for a better Chicago. On Wednesdays, the cohort travels together with their instructors to visit specific sites, and then spends time processing the experience and talking about how it all fits together.
What kind of outings do students go on?
Students have had hands-on learning experiences ranging from community-based organizations like urban gardening to business-oriented subject matter like visiting a downtown courtroom.
How does the Catalyst Semester tie into North Park’s Christian, urban, and intercultural mission and values?
The origin of the program is very much connected to our Christian tradition and commitment to intercultural community. Students engage the city not just through academics, but by serving its people through our ministries, and learning from the diverse people of Chicago. The Catalyst Semester is designed to provide ample opportunities for students to focus on the meaning of living a life of significance and service.
What is behind North Park’s focus on students having a complete and fulfilling college experience?
Our faculty is here to teach and prepare the next generation. The student body is diverse, and as a society, we need to educate a broader base of students—the educators at North Park are in tune with what’s needed for a thriving society, and recognize that the status quo of only educating the elite is something we need to be active in demystifying.
What type of student will get the most out of the Catalyst Semester?
Students who are motivated by justice and making the world a better place. We’re here to teach and support students in being part of a team to make a real difference.
Why is North Park investing in this program, without a tuition increase?
We care deeply about our students and their success and are always looking for ways to provide our students the highest quality comprehensive college experience, expanding academics, faith, and exposure to hands-on learning off-campus. Our Christian values are rooted in making a high-quality education accessible to a student body made up of diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Because Chicago is a world-class city, our students will benefit greatly from understanding it and learning from it. They will be prepared for today’s global world.
Given your background as an urban sociologist, what are your thoughts on how living and working in a major metropolitan city influences a career?
Studies have shown that students who have their first job in large cities like Chicago—regardless of their actual job or title—rise up the ranks faster, are promoted more often, and earn a higher wage. This is because the best and brightest are attracted to global cities, and they are the sites of the world’s innovation, creativity, and inventions. Rubbing shoulders with such people and organizations benefits students for a lifetime.
How far back do North Park’s roots go to being in a major metropolitan city?
North Park just celebrated its 125th anniversary. Over the years, the University was offered land outside the city, but the decision was made in 1980 to stay in our original urban location. This decision was thoughtful and deliberate, as North Park’s identity as an Christian, urban, and intercultural institution has remained consistent—students and graduates develop real connections with the city, the people around them, opportunities for career growth, and opportunities for truly rich, meaningful lives in service to others.
How is being in a cohort part of the Catalyst Semester experience?
In a cohort, you learn from one another’s strengths, and in the same way, students get to role model their strengths—it’s a win-win where students serve as leader and learner. And together, the cohort works to problem-solve, a valuable skill, transferable as students and graduates pursue their career paths.
How does the Catalyst Semester contribute toward growing Illinois’s workforce and building an engaged citizenry?
Participating in the Catalyst Semester is engaging in nature, where students are exposed to the complexities of community-related and real business issues, requiring creative thinking, problem solving, and polished communication skills to work together in a team environment. The hope and goal is for students to form relationships within the community, build a connection to Chicago, and find good and meaningful careers and vocations.
What faculty members are leading the program?
Dr. Rachelle Ankney, professor of mathematics, and Rich Kohng, Director of Civic Engagement with University Ministries, launched and lead the Catalyst Semester and continue to monitor learning best practices.