North Park University’s Catalyst 606_ _ Program | Chicago as the Classroom

Catalyst 606 Semester
Rich Kohng, Director of Civic Engagement at North Park, leads a biking tour of the lake shore as part of the Catalyst Semester.

Summer is here, and with it comes the typical lull felt on every campus around the country. At North Park University in Chicago, however, this summer will prove to be a busy one for the Urban Hub department. This Fall, they will expand their successful Catalyst 606 _ _ experiential learning program across campus as they seek to transform the common understanding of higher education and its public purpose.

What is Catalyst 606 _ _ ?

The Catalyst 606 _ _ program is a curricular experiential learning plan to engage North Park students with the city of Chicago by tethering public service and civic engagement to the classroom. Rich Kohng, the Director of Civic Engagement at North Park, said that the newly expanded program will engage more than 30 classes and upwards of 600 students in experiential learning opportunities.

“The Catalyst program is about seeing the city as our classroom,” said Kohng. “It gives students the opportunity to experience the city in a new way and provides the space and resources to apply knowledge they gain for the public good.”

The ambitious program spearheaded by Provost Michael Emerson and voted on by the faculty, changes the structure of learning at North Park by introducing a time-block on Wednesdays from 11:40am-4:10pm called the “Catalyst Block.” All courses scheduled in the afternoon can utilize this block twice a semester much like an urban lab.

Chicago is Your Classroom

One of the key aspects of the Catalyst 606 _ _ program is connecting classrooms with community partners, leaders, and gatekeepers embedded in neighborhoods around Chicago. These organizations are established difference-makers in Chicago. Whether it’s a youth home, a public school or a health clinic – the organizations that Catalyst 606 _ _ teams up with have deep roots in their community.

Rich Kohng said that finding strong community partnerships is important because it helps the student feel more deeply connected to the neighborhood and Chicago as a whole.

“One of the critical objectives of Catalyst 606_ _ is to democratize education,” said Kohng. “We want to help our students see the city not only from the lens of their textbooks, but from the community’s point of view; to build conversation around the perspectives of community members.”

Although this Fall semester will greatly expand the scope of the Catalyst 606_ _ program, the framework is not entirely new to North Park’s campus. The program grew out of the Chicago Intensive Program which is now known as the Catalyst 606_ _ Semester.

According to the North Park website, the Catalyst 606 _ _ Semester consists of three components:

Students in the Catalyst Semester cohort pose for a picture during a Chicago Architecture Tour.

Classroom: Students belong to a cohort that takes the same classes for one semester, tailored to address the urban context through various areas of study;

Practicum: Each student serves with a community-based organization doing meaningful work in the city while gaining valuable work experience;

Integration: Faculty and staff facilitate the exploration of new concepts and ideas. This includes tangible opportunities to see firsthand the diverse fabric of the city through its residents, walking tours, museums, performances, and local dining.

The integration component takes place on Wednesdays and this served as the inspiration for the shift to the new academic calendar.

North Park University’s Urban Hub

While these deep dive programs will continue to exist, the course-minded approach to offering experiential learning opportunities will be broadened across the curriculum though the Catalyst courses. Courses taking advantage of the Catalyst schedule reach across disciplines with courses ranging from Painting to Advanced Topics in Biology.

To handle this wide array of programming, the University established a new center called the Urban Hub. The Urban Hub will serve as the command center for the Catalyst initiative and also further the University’s commitment to the city through program development and curricular innovation.

Kate Gonzales, an AmeriCorps VISTA with Illinois Campus Compact at North Park University, is tasked with connecting North Park to new community partnerships to accommodate the expanding program. She said that the project has stoked her passion for community work.

“It’s fun to work with the students,” said Gonzales, “and see the ways they connect what they learn in the classroom with what they learn with our community partners. They experience diversity and disparity and it opens their minds to seeing the city in a new way.”

Both Kohng and Gonzales said that faculty currently involved in the Catalyst 606_ _ program are excited when their students bring their experiences into the classroom. Kohng said that the application of critical thinking to real world circumstances is a win-win for campus and community.

“We know that experiential learning programs help with retention and enrollment,” said Kohng. “We also know that these experiences will help our students become more democratically engaged and challenge them to become better citizens and neighbors.


Catalyst North Park

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