Pritzker Day of Service Returns After Pandemic Hiatus

When Saara-Anne Azizi returned to the Pritzker curriculum as a second-year student in the fall of 2021 after finishing her PhD in chemistry, she knew it would not be the same Pritzker as when she matriculated in 2016. Aside from a new group of classmates and the natural changes that occur over time, the COVID-19 pandemic had drastically altered the social landscape of Pritzker. Still, Azizi found herself missing one signature event in particular that had become a core part of her experience.

“As I was reintegrating with the medical school, Day of Service was just something I noticed not being there,” Azizi said. “There was usually one every quarter back in the day, so when it didn’t happen again in the fall (of 2023) we were like, ‘Oh…’”

With institutional memory of pre-pandemic Pritzker that pre-dated even current fourth-year students, who matriculated one quarter before the pandemic, Azizi felt compelled to revive a longstanding tradition. She shot off a quick text to fellow MSTP student Kishan Sanagni, a current second-year student—“Want to do this again?” it read—and the duo started organizing shortly after Thanksgiving.

After several rounds of feeler emails to the student body and countless hours of coordinating with community partners, Pritzker Day of Service returned on February 11.

That morning, roughly 45 students and a few faculty members gathered at Pritzker before volunteering across seven community organizations. Sangani had recruited the University Community Service Center (UCSC) to help start the day before volunteers got to work.

“We worked with everyone to figure out how much they wanted to talk about what they were doing versus just doing stuff,” Azizi said. The UCSC “came and started off our day with a discussion on working as part of the University of Chicago on the South Side and how your identity fits in with that.”

Prior to the pandemic, Azizi and Sangani had been part of the leadership team for Day of Service, a quarterly event that saw students and faculty fan out across Chicago to volunteer with community organizations in a variety of roles, a reflection of the foundational service component of Pritzker’s identity. When the pandemic hit in winter 2020, Day of Service went on hold for nearly three years.

Day of Service also presented an opportunity for students to get to know peers from classes above and below their own, which was particularly meaningful for MSTP students after spending four of five years away from the medical curriculum to complete a PhD.

“I think it’s really important to have different classes hang out,” Azizi said. “Last year I joined the second-year class, which was particularly isolated because of the pandemic, and people really felt like they didn’t know other people. When I think about things that helped change that previously, it’s not just Social Rounds but also Days of Service and other activities that don’t involve just the first-year students but everybody.”

Added Sangani: “I think part of it too is that it’s often difficult as a med student to be longitudinally involved with a service organization or even seek out opportunities on a regular basis. This was also a good opportunity to get people back into in-person volunteering for organizations they might find meaning with or some interest in helping out with regularly.”

Among the organizations for which students volunteered in February were Fight2Feed, the South Side YMCA, the University of Chicago Emergency Department, food pantries at Saint James Catholic Church and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and Maria Shelter.

“All the organizations were very appreciative of the efforts,” Sangani said. “We had a wide variety of organizations that were very well-resourced versus others that are still smaller and rely a lot on community help and volunteer time.

“People were kind of surprised to see the range of different organizations that do different kind of work in the city. We had people at food pantries literally handing out hot meals versus the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which was like boxing food on an industrial scale almost and meals for individuals facing homelessness or challenges with food.”

In a somewhat spontaneous project, several students helped provide a much-needed paint job to the walls of the YMCA in Woodlawn, just south of the University of Chicago campus. The day wrapped up with a meal and more reflection on service.

The pandemic undoubtedly altered some Pritzker traditions permanently and even ended others. With a positive response to Day of Service’s return, Azizi and Sanagani are confident it can reemerge as a quarterly tradition that brings students closer together and connects them to the community that surrounds Pritzker. They are already planning a Day of Service for the spring.

“Obviously we thought it was great,” Azizi said. “It feels like we’re building more partnerships, deeper partnerships with community organizations.”