Their Place in the Sun

Internships afford undergraduates one of the best opportunities to integrate classroom learning with practical experience and to make both theoretical and practical connections between diverse areas of study. Internships are also a great way to demonstrate work experience and initiative on a resume, providing an advantage when applying to graduate school or pursuing a career.

working in a garden

Interns work in the gardens on East Campus.

In January 2013, the university’s six Centers for Cultural Understanding and Social Change began the UIC Heritage Garden project. Spearheaded by the Latino Cultural Center (LCC) and the African-American Cultural Center (AACC), the project offers internships to students interested in exploring culturally-diverse approaches to sustainable and climate-friendly gardening.

The internship program was developed, and is run, with the assistance of student task force leaders. “The goal of the internship program is to establish a sustainable educational model with activities that can help mobilize other students on campus around environmental and cultural sustainability issues,” explained Rosa Cabrera, director of the LCC. “Our student leaders and interns work together to discover the many ways in which individuals can contribute to creating a sustainable future that benefits both people and nature.”

Heritage Garden internships are not just a day in the park. This past summer, in addition to mornings spent tending to the six raised plots on East Campus, the Heritage Garden crew went on several site visits to community farms and gardens, completed an aggressively interdisciplinary list of readings and discussions, and created several sculptural art projects. They wrote, produced and presented a performance art project at a culminating public event on August 4, 2014.

“Research is a big part of the Heritage Garden experience,” said Lori Baptista, director of the AACC. “Students collect family recipes for traditional dishes and herbal medicines, as well as the stories and memories that place these things in a cultural context. This process helps students discover and appreciate the connections between past, present, and future.”


Some of the summer 2014 Heritage Garden interns.

Heritage Garden teachers

Heritage Garden instructors (left to right): Lori Baptista, Liz Thomson, Rosa Cabrera, Megan Carney.

This summer, LAS undergraduates Phoenix Chen (mathematics, statistics and computer science), Sharanitha Sampath (biochemistry), Tonia Sosa (psychology), Ian Torres (Latin American and Latino studies), and Lucia Whalen (psychology), worked 20 hours per week in the 12-week paid internship program. They were joined by Natalie Cruz (marketing),Yaritza Guillen (urban planning and public affairs), and Karl Novak (engineering) and were supervised by LAS graduate students Sarah Hernandez (psychology) and Jessica Zhang (communication), who also served as project photographer. Baptista and Cabrera, as well as Megan Carney, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center and Liz Thomson of the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, served as program instructors and supervisors for the summer program.

Hernandez shows a sculpture

Sara Hernandez points out one of the garden sculptures. Photo by Joshua Clark

A graduate concentration in community prevention with a research focus on racial and ethnic relations in community gardens made Hernandez’s involvement in the Heritage Garden a natural fit. After finishing her PhD, she plans to work in program development and evaluation with community organizations in Chicago. “I became involved with the project at its inception,” said Hernandez, “and I have been able to work with others through a continual flexible planning process, working collaboratively over several iterations of the program. Building this set of skills will help me work with other organizations in the future.”

Ian Torres

Ian Torres tends to the garden.

Inspired by LALS instructors Rosa Cabrera and Jose Lopez, Ian Torres signed on as a Heritage Garden intern to increase his knowledge of urban gardening and sustainability issues and bring it home to his Humboldt Park neighborhood. Torres, who hopes to become an educator and community organizer, said that the internship delivered more than he expected. “I learned that being sustainable is not just about being eco-friendly or having a garden. It is about making the best decisions that will be of the most benefit in the long run, and that all actions are connected—nothing happens without affecting something else,” he said. “I will bring this understanding to my work as an educator and activist.” 

Karl Novak

Karl Novak explains the uses of Echinacea. Photo by Joshua Clark

Engineering student Karl Novak, who created a hydroponics system for an exhibit at the African American Cultural Center, enjoyed working with individuals from a range of majors. “We shared information and created a larger pool of knowledge, experience, and resources,” he said. “I also developed leadership and public speaking skills. Just as important, this internship was a ton of fun and I met a lot of new friends.”

“It was great to see that people with so many different majors were able to relate to the purpose of the Heritage Garden, said Sharanitha Sampath, a biochemistry major who hopes to become a physician’s assistant. “I was particularly interested in learning about the many different uses the plants are put to in different societies and cultures around the world, particularly details about the medicinal values of many of the plants. As someone who wants to go into the health field, I found that the most valuable.”

Sharanitha and Phoenix

Sharanitha Sampath and Phoenix Chen on a site visit.

“The interdisciplinary part of the internship is what I loved the most,” said Phoenix Chen, who is majoring in the teaching of mathematics. “As a student constantly searching for ways to enrich my college experience, I appreciate all the opportunities the internship offered me. It opened my eyes to a whole different world, allowing me to explore environmental issues at the global level and to learn from passionate people who love nature as much as I do. After I begin my teaching career I would like to start or sponsor a school garden to raise students’ awareness about sustainability. I will be able to use what I’ve learned at the UIC Heritage Garden.”

Lucia Whalen

Lucia Whalen works on an art project.

Lucia Whalen agreed that the interdisciplinary aspect of the internship was a big draw. After finishing her degree in psychology, she hopes to work with the Chicago Public Schools in a way that incorporates urban agriculture and health in the form of movement, mindfulness, and nutrition. Whalen feels the internship did a wonderful job structuring all the different components—from gardening to cultural history and social justice to art making.

Theater performance

Interns present a performance piece based on family stories.

“I entered the internship with a basic desire to learn about community healing and building through healing with the land,” she said. “However, I learned so much more, and feel transformed by the experience. My eyes have been opened to the importance of diversity in sustainability work, and UIC is such an important place to be doing this work. It doesn’t matter how many new ‘green’ appliances are created or how organically a person eats—although these two things are vitally important. Innovations are irrelevant if we as a species do not learn how to live in harmony, and in order to do that we must unite through diversity. In order to get along, we must be able to not only see past our differences, but understand and embrace our differences.” 

Photos by Jessica Zhang, unless otherwise indicated