For the past 14 years, summer in Chicago has been synonymous with Lollapalooza, one of the country’s largest annual music festivals. For the past seven years, the brainchild of Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell has also been synonymous with ThinkChicago, an annual civic tech challenge that brings approximately 200 college students from across the United States together to explore Chicago’s growing technological landscape and formulate ideas to positively impact the city.
This year 10 students from Northeastern Illinois University were selected to take part in the weeklong program and collaborate with students from 17 states and 41 schools, including prestigious institutions such as Harvard University, Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Through its involvement with America's Urban Campus and the Chicago Higher Education Career Services Executives Collaborative, Northeastern’s Office of Career Development was able to notify students and professors about ThinkChicago’s application and encourage students to apply.
“It was a special feeling to know that Northeastern can be competitive among these other schools,” said Melisew Mengsitie, a senior in Northeastern’s Computer Science program.
Mengsitie came to Northeastern as a transfer student from Truman College and is on track to graduate in December 2019. He heard about the program from one of his professors, Francisco Iacobelli, and decided to apply.
“I met a lot of great leaders and students,” Mengsitie said. “I made a lot of connections, including getting the business card of a company I’m interested in applying to after graduation.”
According to ThinkChicago, this is also the first time in program history that a majority of participating students were female.
“Last semester I took a lot of classes that collaborate art and technology,” Galván Orozco said. “In Digital Foundations, I learned a lot about Adobe software. I also took Art and Tech, where we combined art and technology. When I saw what ThinkChicago was trying to do, with it being really focused on technology, I wanted to see if I could incorporate art with technology and see how Lollapalooza fuses the two together.”
ThinkChicago happens twice a year—during Lollapalooza and during Chicago Ideas Week. Participants are chosen based on their interest in a number of fields, including technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. The program’s goal is to bring participants to Chicago’s top tech companies and give them the opportunity to not only see themselves there in the future, but to work on a project over the course of the program that could make a lasting impression on Chicago today. Group project ideas are submitted to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and a project chosen by a team of experts is selected for implementation.
“Ensuring future entrepreneurs and business leaders decide to live and work in Chicago is critical creating a top-tier tech ecosystem and inclusive growth,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a press release about ThinkChicago. “If we want to enhance educational equity for every student, expand economic opportunity to every neighborhood and strengthen public safety across our city, it is going to take each of us and bold, innovative ideas.”
All group projects were presented at Lollapalooza’s Kidz-A-Palooza stage on Friday before the gates opened. Mengsitie’s group project idea was a website to connect minority organizations on the South and Southwest Sides of Chicago to early childhood resources. Galván Orozco’s group devised a plan that would ask the city to allow artists to use empty buildings as art spaces. Their hope was that the project could grow into a collaboration between artists, the city and privately-owned buildings, including exteriors of homes, to become canvases for public art. Mengsitie’s group took second place.
“ThinkChicago gives students an unparalleled opportunity to be immersed in Chicago’s vibrant tech and innovation scene,” Mark Tebbe, chairman of ChicagoNEXT, said via press release. “We are connecting top talent from around the country with Chicago’s leading businesses, providing students the opportunity to advance their careers, and companies the ability to expand their talent pool.”
Even though Galván Orozco’s idea didn’t win the top prize, she would like to find a way to utilize what she learned about civic tech and use technology to bring more public art to neighborhoods. Both she and Mengsitie were excited to visit businesses such as 1871, a digital startup community, and mHub, an organization working with the city’s entrepreneurs to reduce the cost and barriers for physical product innovation. They also heard from speakers from the City of Chicago and organizations such as Microsoft and Uptake, an industrial analytics platform.
As part of the program, the participants were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of Lollapalooza before the gates opened and enjoyed the music festival for free. Thanks to some financial assistance from Career Development, three Northeastern students were able to stay at the residence hall at the University of Illinois at Chicago along with other ThinkChicago participants.
“I really got to bond with other students because we were able to stay at the dorms,” said Galván Orozco, who typically has a two-hour commute to campus from the Southeast Side Chicago. “If I was commuting, the bonds wouldn’t have been the same. I feel like I only would have made connections with the people who were in my group during the program.”
Even with the long commute, and her status as an DACAmented student, Galván Orozco feels the commitment to participate in ThinkChicago and earn her degree at Northeastern– despite the risk as an undocumented student–is worth it to achieve her goals. She doesn’t want others to be dissuaded from similar opportunities either.
“I encourage people to apply and ask questions about programs even if the program only matches a little bit with what you’re interested in,” Galván Orozco said. “You might feel like you’re an outlier, but in this case they were looking for outliers, not just students who fit exactly what the program was looking for because they don’t want people who are just interested in computer science. They want people from different backgrounds to contribute to the program and the civic tech challenge to make ideas better.”
Top photo (left to right): Northeastern students Thaer Sabaana, Francisco Sebastian, Sara Galván Orozco, Melisew Mengsitie and Daniel Vega at ThinkChicago: Lollapalooza 2019.