Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Claire Olsewski

"One of the main things I try to instill is 'You are in a huge city — try to take advantage of it."

-Claire Olszewski

Claire Olszewski: Global Service Brings a World of Learning

Claire Olsewski

On a family trip to Kenya when she was eight years old, senior Claire Olszewski saw schoolchildren sitting in a box drawn in the dirt. At that moment she grasped the disparities in education, which she considers the "number one" right. Since then, experiences such as these have motivated her civic engagement locally and globally, and the wide world has been her classroom.

During Olszewski's first week of college she dove into learning about Chicago communities through Northwestern's pre-orientation Freshman Urban Program. Later as a counselor and co-chair she inspired others to learn about urban issues. "One of the main things I try to instill is 'You are in a huge city — try to take advantage of it,'" she says. Focusing on housing, education, immigration and politics, the "eye-opening" program challenges students to think about how policies affect local communities, according to Olszewski.

Just as eye-opening was Olszewski's experience in India last summer. Through Northwestern's Center for Global Engagement, she worked at informal education centers run by the nonprofit Seva Mandir in two urban slums. Because many Indian children do not receive schooling, her project was to help the education centers work with communities to promote education for children."Hopefully the centers will ignite some passion that will inspire the children to go to school," says Olszewski, a learning and organizational change major.

What she gained in India will stick with her for future endeavors. "I learned it was important to find people thathave influence in the community, then tailor the program to what they think is important," she asserts. "I had to learn strategies for motivating people." She also gained understanding of cultural differences. For example, "Time is an afterthought in India where time is money in the U.S.," notes Olszewski, who claims that one of the most important things she learned in India was patience.

Last summer marked a return to India for Olszewski. Her first trip was in high school, when she visited communities that benefited from a fundraising drive she organized after the 2004 tsunami. "That's when I fell in love with India," she says.

Earlier, Olszewski had spent her childhood living in Munich and London, an experience that encouraged openness to other cultures. "It made me understand that the world was much bigger than what I saw outside my front door," she says. "I could not be more grateful to my family for encouraging me to jump into new experiences."

At SESP, Olszewski has taken advantage of many opportunities for experiential learning. Her on-the-job practicum at Mission Measurement enlightened her about consulting for nonprofits and school districts — and also about a career of interest, corporate philanthropy. In addition, SESP's Civic Engagement Certificate Programtaught her about community development through hands on work with a cultural community center in Evanston.

This real-world learning reinforced lessons from her SESP faculty mentors, Jody Kretzmann and Paul Arnston, on how to make civic engagement productive. She says Kretzmann taught her how to look for assets a community can draw on to become more successful; Arnston helped her learn to ask the right questions, talk with local people and work at the pace of the community. Now Olszewski is passing on her insights as a teaching assistant in Kretzmann's Community Development class.

When she first heard about SESP as a high school senior, Olszewski immediately recognized that the School fit her interests. "I thought, 'This is the school I was meant to be in!'" she says, and she applied early decision to Northwestern.

Although she is pleased with how much she has learned both inside and outside the classroom, Olszewski relishes most the learning that lies ahead. "I like to explore things and be part of vibrant experiences," she says with a smile."I still feel like I have so much to learn." And looking toward her goals after graduation, education is definitely in the picture: "Education has always been part of mypassion," she says.