Commitment to equity, community engagement earns UIC student national recognition
Roseland, a predominantly Black, working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, is where Courtney Washington was born and raised, but it’s never been her educational home.
As a high school student, she made the two-hour round trip commute to Walter Payton College Prep, a selective enrollment public high school located in a largely white neighborhood on the Near North Side.
“This commute was taxing on my mental health, and over time, I grew frustrated that I had to travel so far out of my community for a quality education. I began channeling my frustrations into a growing passion for education reform,” said Washington, now a third-year Honors College student at the University of Illinois Chicago. “I love the rich history and community of Roseland, but I would be naive to dismiss the problems resulting from decades of city disinvestment, particularly the lack of investment in the neighborhood schools.”
She has turned inspiration into action since arriving at UIC through the President’s Award Program Honors Scholarship, UIC’s most prestigious four-year tuition and housing scholarship given to exemplary incoming first-year Honors College students.
With a dual major in public policy and economics, Washington has worked in a variety of roles focused on increasing access to high-quality educational opportunities for low-income and underrepresented minority students in Chicago Public Schools.
“Students in underfunded schools across Chicago deserve a high standard of education and access to quality resources so they, too, can have the opportunity to be set up for success,” she said.
Washington’s efforts were recently recognized by Campus Compact, a national nonprofit coalition of over 1,000 colleges and universities, which named her and 218 other students to its 2021-2022 Newman Civic Fellowship cohort.
UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis nominated Washington for the fellowship, which provides a variety of learning and networking opportunities, including a national conference of Newman Civic Fellows. It also offers fellows with pathways to apply for exclusive scholarship and post-graduate opportunities.
“We are very proud of Courtney’s accomplishments,” Amiridis said, adding that she “embodies the highest ideals of the UIC community and our mission of service to others.”
As a member of the Urban Public Policy Fellowship Program with UIC’s Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement, she secured an internship with the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of School Counseling and Postsecondary Advising. There she helped to create the CPS Undocumented Champion Resource Guide, a handbook for the district’s counselors that led to a related staff training and development program to help better address the needs of non-U.S.-citizen students. She has continued similar work as a board member of the Chicago Law and Education Foundation, an organization that provides free legal services to Chicago’s underserved communities.
Her campus activities include serving as a member of the leadership council for Peer Health Exchange, a student organization that teaches skills-based health education to first-year CPS students. She is also the co-chapter head at UIC and the National Education Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Network, where she trains and supports emerging policy leaders and advocates to develop their own student-led policy campaigns.
Off campus, she coordinates weekly home deliveries for families experiencing food insecurity for Top Box Foods, a community nonprofit organization committed to providing affordable groceries to those in need.
Washington says being a Newman Civic Fellow will provide important lessons in skill and partnership development, while also offering greater insight into how to transform her education equity ideas into a reality.
“As a leader, there is always room for growth and this fellowship is a chance to connect with these like-minded individuals and learn some of their best practices for advocating for greater equity in our communities. Change is done best in coalition and this opportunity will offer those spaces to exchange ideas that will improve my ability to enact change,” she said.
After graduating from UIC, Washington hopes to earn a master’s in public policy in preparation for a career at a policy think tank where she can investigate innovative methods of synthesizing traditional liberal politics with progressive policies.
The Newman Civic Fellowship program, which is named for the late Campus Compact co-founder Frank Newman, is supported by KPMG Foundation.