As a sophomore at Northern Illinois University, Randiss Hopkins looked around his first NIU Cares Day—an annual service event during which 1,000 students participate in giving back to the university’s community in DeKalb—and thought, “What if we were doing this in Chicago?”
What if hundreds of college students converged to help out distressed communities like Lawndale, where Hopkins himself grew up? The best part, he thought, would be that children living in those disadvantaged neighborhoods could see living examples of how to pursue a better life through education.
[pullquote]“You do what you see when you’re a kid”: Bringing college students home to model service + success for Chi youth[/pullquote]
That was the beginning of The Remember Project, which Hopkins started in August 2013. The program brings young Chicagoans studying at colleges and universities all over the country back to their city neighborhoods for impactful service projects.
“You do what you see when you’re a kid,” says Hopkins, now 23 and a senior at NIU. “That’s why younger kids are out there selling drugs.”
But if those children saw something different, something more inspiring, Hopkins believes that “you could easily change their narrative.”
The Remember Project has already attracted 200 members, students at 25 colleges and universities who regularly “come back to give back.” During vacations from school, when other students might be relaxing on sunny beaches, they are mentoring younger people in the communities where they grew up, serving as examples of success—and of service.
This past summer, at The Remember Project’s annual Save Chicago Day, about 80 college students worked side-by-side with about 50 high-school and middle-school students from the nonprofit After School Matters program to clean up and landscape three Chicago parks. The event was one of three or four that The Remember Project sponsors during school vacations each year.
Randiss Hopkins speaks before the City Club of Chicago about the role of public service in higher education. Image courtesy of Northern Illinois University
The Remember Project often works with After School Matters, which offers engaging extracurricular activities to inner city teens and middle-schoolers. The organization also partners with the Chicago Public Schools for events where college students talk with younger students about their experiences in higher education.
Hopkins participated in After School Matters himself all through high school, mostly at the Chicago West Community Music Center where he played piano, performing as part of a group for the first time there. Jukube Felton, one of his teachers at Curie Metro High School, encouraged Hopkins to stick with the piano. All that support led Hopkins to a summer session at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Youth advocate Ayesha Jaco, who met Hopkins at the music center, invited him to attend a Children’s Defense Fund leadership conference in Knoxville a few years ago. It was there that The Remember Project came together in his mind.
“Seeing college leaders who cared about other things besides themselves and their own success” made a big impression on him, Hopkins says.
The success of The Remember Project earned Hopkins a summer internship in Washington, D.C., this year with Young People For, a project of People for the American Way. He has also been awarded a fellowship with the Newman Civic Fellows. For all his dedication and success, Hopkins was chosen to speak at We Day Illinois last spring.
Hopkins would like to go on to graduate school, perhaps in public policy. But The Remember Project is a priority for him, because he believes service is the key to change.
“The imprint of service is so important,” Hopkins says. “It makes you think about the bigger picture.”