Business UNusual Spotlight

Forging New Pathways in STEM for Chicago Students

SDI DEI info in front of electric power lines station
Instead of...
only recruiting talent from its usual pipelines and pathways
University of Chicago
expanded internship opportunities for local residents through a partnership with City Colleges of Chicago

As emerging fields like AI, data science and climate technology have taken on national importance and created new hiring needs, the University of Chicago realized an opportunity to think locally. In 2021, UChicago formalized a partnership with City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) to increase diversity in growing STEM fields, with a focus on four key areas: education, research, civic engagement and workforce development.

“If we are going to talk seriously about diversity in the workforce, both in the scientific disciplines and beyond, then we have to think about the other players in this city, other than the individuals we educate through our traditional college and professional schools,” said Nika Levando Birman, Executive Director of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives in the Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) at UChicago. “Where are there synergies that can be created, since our geography is shared?”

A Shared Mission

“We recognize [City Colleges’] important contributions to the civic infrastructure and fabric of this city,” said Juan De Pablo, Executive Vice President for Science, Innovation, National Laboratories and Global Initiatives at UChicago, in his remarks at a CCC event in January 2023. He highlighted the shared mission of both institutions to expand STEM education and workforce development.

In 2022, OCE established a formal internship program to forge new pathways in STEM for CCC students. Participants spent six weeks of the summer interning with IT Services at UChicago, which was facing a hiring crunch due to the pandemic. Select students were invited to continue on as apprentices, with the opportunity to be offered full-time employment after graduation.

“This was an opportunity for us not only to address a critical hiring need but to provide an opportunity for City Colleges students to learn as they’re going to school,” said Kelli Chávez, Associate Director of Community Development Initiatives at OCE. Out of seven interns in the initial cohort, two were hired.

Vanessa Martin is one of those students. Prior to the internship, she had worked for a decade in retail management and taken cybersecurity classes at CCC. Working with IT Services at UChicago gave her the direct experience she needed "to step into a different role." She was offered a full-time position as an assistant risk analyst at the university. "It opens doors for students," Martin said of the program.  

While many units across UChicago had existing relationships with CCC, the new partnership  has spurred OCE to develop a centralized approach to workforce development. OCE plans to expand internships across the university in areas like cybersecurity and UI/UX, establishing a set of best practices to ensure that interns’ experiences are consistent.

“Prioritizing the partnership is the change for the broader institution,” said Levando Birman. “It also allows us, hopefully, to increase the volume of opportunities both for our internal units and for City Colleges of Chicago students.”

The Future of Recruiting

Identifying employment opportunities is one aspect of the work, but shifting perspectives is another. “We are used to recruiting from the same pipelines and pathways, usually people with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, maybe graduates of the University of Chicago itself,” said Chávez. “But a lot of these departments are seeing that the old way of recruiting is not working.”

Hiring managers at the university have responded positively to the partnership. According to Sarah Tinsman, Program Director for Inclusive Innovation at OCE, hiring managers are beginning to widen their understanding of “what it means to be a STEM professional” to include technically trained applicants who have specific expertise in areas of need.

“This is an opportunity to show that there are people from a variety of backgrounds and education levels that can have a place at the University of Chicago,” said Chávez. “We’re working with an institution that can help us bring in diverse experiences while providing our hiring managers with quality, qualified candidates. Hopefully this effort will expand beyond City Colleges students and get people to think more expansively about candidate pools in general, so that we can continue to recruit more and more local residents to the university.”

Learn more about UChicago Local, the university’s initiative to buy and hire locally.

Photo courtesy of University of Chicago