Article |

How the Graham School Is Broadening Access to Liberal Arts Education

The Graham School is widening the front door to the University of Chicago through philanthropy, community partnerships, and technology—and welcoming more learners with more lived experiences as a result.

Purple flowers bloom in front of an open, wooden door.

The University of Chicago’s Graham School has long considered itself the front door to the heralded University, a welcoming, curious collection of lifelong learners gathering in a community “of the dialogue” as former UChicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins once put it.

And the Graham School is now working to make that front door even wider.

Powered by philanthropy, community partnerships, and technology, the Graham School is seeking to welcome more learners from more lived experiences into Graham courses and programs, believing the School’s distinctive approach to inquiry can support personal growth, enhance learning, and inspire civic engagement.

“As the [lifelong] liberal arts education arm of the University of Chicago, we take seriously our commitment to expanding access and resources from the University to the greater public and for the greater good,” explains Nikki Yagoda, director of innovation and partnerships at Graham.

Existing efforts to broaden access

Accelerating philanthropy from generous donors who support Graham’s mission of lifelong learning has played a central role in Graham’s efforts to expand access, particularly through scholarships to Graham courses. In Autumn of 2021, the Graham School had 26 learners taking courses with scholarship or financial support. One year later, that number nearly quadrupled to more than 90 learners.

Beyond scholarships, the Graham School continues bolstering access through strategic partnerships.

Graham collaborates with Illinois Humanities to provide a full Basic Program scholarship to graduates of their longstanding Odyssey Project. Currently, a dozen Odyssey alumni are enrolled in the Basic Program.

“We have so many people who are interested in engaging in these great, big ideas of the University, but don’t necessarily have access to this kind of curriculum,” says Erika Dudley, a longtime Odyssey Project leader and UChicago’s director of civic leadership initiatives.

In tandem with UChicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, Graham has also invited residents of Chicago’s South Side into distinctive learning adventures. In one novel effort, Graham hosted a summer program for residents of the Hyde Park neighborhood featuring a six-week liberal arts course and a four-week professional writing course.

In addition, Graham has partnered with various UChicago academic units to extend special opportunities for K-12 teachers across the country to study at Graham. After the Illinois legislature passed a civics requirement for high school graduation in 2015, the Graham School introduced a series of workshops with partners like the Newberry Library on implementing a civics curriculum at the high school level. Over 100 Chicago area teachers have been involved in that program to date, reports Fred Beuttler, a Graham instructor and the School’s former associate dean of liberal arts programs.

“These represent major steps forward in our mission of extending the extraordinary assets of this University to all learners,” Yagoda says.

Leveraging technology – and people’s growing comfort with technology – to host online classes, meanwhile, has allowed Graham to extend access to Graham courses and programs far beyond Chicagoland. In 2022, the Graham School celebrated the graduation of the Basic Program’s first online cohort, which included students from coast to coast. Today, the Graham School boasts a global roster of students representing multiple continents.

In addition to expanding Graham’s geographic reach, online courses and their beneficial functionalities, namely recordings of class discussions and closed captioning, have enabled those who face difficulties in the traditional classroom environment to participate in Graham learning.

“These extra features allow more people to come in that would not be able to make it,” says Cynthia Rutz, a Graham instructor since 1991.

The Graham School’s efforts to increase access have coincided with thoughtful work to diversify the curriculum as well. To that point, Graham has added two-year alumni sequences encompassing authors from diverse backgrounds, including gender, race, ethnicity, and religion.

We don’t do lectures [at Graham], but rather we do tables,” Beuttler says. “The vision of a table is that everybody’s equal, everybody brings their own experience to the conversation . . . and we can always add another chair to the table to expand that conversation.

Headshot of Fred Beuttler.

Fred Beuttler, Graham Instructor and Former Associate Dean of Liberal Arts Programs.

Increasing access – and why it matters

UChicago and Graham remain committed to building upon this momentum and further championing accessibility.

“How do we increase access to learning and, more importantly, engage with others … and welcome repeatedly so we get to a point where they feel like the University is part of their homes?” Dudley asks.

While scholarships are a clear way to help those with financial need, Rutz also sees opportunity to expand local partnerships with entities such as the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center near UChicago’s Hyde Park campus as well as the Obama Presidential Center currently under construction in the nearby Jackson Park neighborhood.

Such efforts, Beuttler says, would surely bring more individuals into Graham’s unique lifelong learning ecosystem.

“We don’t do lectures [at Graham], but rather we do tables,” Beuttler says. “The vision of a table is that everybody’s equal, everybody brings their own experience to the conversation … and we can always add another chair to the table to expand that conversation.”

Given contentious divisions in modern American society, Beuttler’s sentiment is a critical one. By increasing access at Graham, the School can help ensure learners from diverse backgrounds and experiences tackle compelling questions together to cultivate understanding, challenge assumptions, and invigorate learning.

In a recent virtual class about 20th century world history, Beuttler recalls discussing decolonization in sub-Saharan Africa. One student based in Kenya then went to a local museum and returned to the next class with images and added context that enlivened the classroom discussion. In another course exploring 1960s U.S. history, Beuttler recalls an elder female student detailing her August 1963 visit to Washington, D.C., to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his iconic “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington.

“Those are just two stories on how access really contributes to what we learn at Graham,” Beuttler says.

Graham’s continued efforts to increase access plays a valuable role in driving equity and civic engagement, Dudley notes. She reminds that discourse in the classroom often translates into discourse in public and then engagement, which might include volunteering, creating informal networks of learning, or voting.

By bringing more students into Graham’s lively learning environments, Dudley is confident those individuals will share their stories with others. This will heighten visibility for the School and encourage more students to pursue Graham’s dynamic learning opportunities.

“Like anything in life, the best way to get people excited about anything is through word of mouth,” Dudley says.

Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

Related Articles

View All Articles

Dipika Mukerjee

Writing from Life: Poetry as Story

In a new writing workshop designed to elevate diverse voices, Writer’s Studio instructor Dr. Dipika Mukherjee champions poetry and the too often discounted value of personal experiences.

Florin Berca with a book in his lap, reading in his sunroom.

Ode to the Quintessential Lifelong Learner

Florin Berca, who took nearly 60 classes at the Graham School, passes away at age 71.

Katia Mitova speaking at the Symposium

Graham Symposium Celebrates School’s Spirited Focus on Lifelong Learning

More than a hundred Graham students, instructors, and staff gather on campus for a day of learning, community-building, and celebration.