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Northwestern University

Freshmen for a Day

Chicago Public School Students Experience Weinberg

Dream big, don’t assume that experts have all the answers, and above all, ask questions.

Those were just a few of the ideas presented to students from three Chicago public high schools who came to Northwestern in May for a first-time event called “Immerse Yourself: A College Symposium.” Designed to provide a taste of undergraduate life, the daylong program included a sampling of seminars taught by Weinberg faculty, a panel discussion by current Northwestern students, an informational session on college admissions and financial aid, and a campus tour.

According to William Haarlow, director of college-admission relations and undergraduate research, the event was intended to reach underserved minority groups in high schools that haven’t traditionally sent many students to Northwestern.

“This is not so much a Northwestern recruitment program as a community outreach event,” Haarlow explained. “It’s about getting the students excited about college.”

Onis Cheathams, associate director of undergraduate admission, selected the participating high schools and worked with the schools’ counselors in choosing about 80 qualified juniors.

Cheathams’s overarching goal was to supply advice and encouragement to the students, as they contemplated college applications. “I want them to gain a renewed vision of college and exposure to a subject area they hadn’t known about before. I hope they get the opportunity to see themselves in some of our students, and then they will have the chance to see the campus.”

Most of the students hadn’t visited Northwestern before. “I’m looking for academic opportunities, and I’m really interested in learning about student life here,” said Rana Tuggle of the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, a South Side school for girls in grades seven through twelve that focuses on math, science, and technology.

The symposium was also a new experience for a small group of students from the World Language High School in the Little Village neighborhood, according to their counselor Liliana Ponce. “They’ve been looking forward to this,” she said.

After breakfast and a brief welcome by Cheathams, students broke up into groups to attend sample classes. Faculty members who participated had previously taught freshman seminars which cultivate critical thinking through a focus on engaging—and sometimes offbeat—subject matter. Topics for the symposium seminars were chosen for their appeal to high school students, Haarlow explained. Seminar titles included “Death of the Dinosaurs,” “Mysteries and Thrillers: Long May They Terrify,” and “Racial Politics in the Windy City.”

In his seminar titled “Common Sense, Elegance, and Other Horrible Mistakes in Astronomy,” Michael Smutko, senior lecturer in physics and astronomy, challenged students to speak out during his talk. (A couple of students did, in fact, interrupt the discussion to make comments and ask for clarifications.)

“If you get nothing else out of today, I want you to recognize that science is a method, a process—not the answers. It’s a way of thinking, coming up with ideas, and testing them without bias,” he told them.

Smutko gave a brief survey of discoveries in physics and astronomy over the last 2,000 years, beginning with a quote by Albert Einstein: “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” While discussing important historic theories—Aristotle’s geocentric model of the universe, Copernicus’s idea of a sun-centered universe, Galileo’s study of astronomy—he also showed that even renowned scientists make mistakes. For instance, Einstein at first discounted the Big Bang theory when it was proposed in 1927 by a Belgian priest named Georges Lemaître, who had arrived at the idea by following Einstein’s own theory of general relativity.

“Don’t always believe the word of experts. In reality we have to listen to a few, but they can be wrong. Even common sense can be wrong,” Smutko said.

He finished the seminar with a curious exercise. He played a song backwards, which everyone agreed sounded like gibberish. Then he played it again, telling students that previously some people had heard the word “Satan” in it. Sure enough, most students heard Satan several times during the second round.

On the overhead projector he displayed a sheet of creepy lyrics describing Satan that had been allegedly transcribed from the song, and then played the song a third time. The effect was sinister.

“Do you know what song this is?” he asked the class. No one knew. On the screen flashed an album cover by 1970s rock band Led Zeppelin, and Smutko told the students the song was “Stairway to Heaven.” The backwards translation was nothing but a hoax.

“Our human nature is to try to define order where there is none,” he warned. “The same thing happens to scientists. If you’re looking for something hard enough you may just end up fabricating it.”

As Aakeem Chauncey of the Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men left the seminar, he said, “This opened a lot of doors in my mind. Now I might look into things that have never been done before.… I found it motivating, not just in science but in any subject.”

In another seminar Jaime Dominguez, a lecturer in political science, led a discussion on the political process and the obstacles that various races have historically encountered in Chicago. He and students talked about the importance of equal representation in government, ways that disenfranchised groups can enter the political process, and such crucial legislation as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dominguez constantly encouraged students to give their opinions and analysis.

In concluding the seminar Dominguez explained to the students, “No matter where you end up going to college, you’ll be asked to do this at some point. College is not about rehashing a text you’ve read, but putting it into context. That’s how you begin to make sense of it.”

After Dominguez’s seminar, Asia Black of Young Women’s Academy reflected, “I learned today how structural changes can affect people individually. I also got to hear about other people’s points of view.”

When asked what motivated Dominguez to participate in the symposium, he replied, “I just remember growing up and being a participant in these programs. They left an imprint on me. I learned from them that I needed to go to college, and why. This experience is tangible.”

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