Category Archives: Service

Three Spinners

An Interview with Alexandra Van Doren (MAPH ’13), CEO of Three Spinners

Alexandra van Doren (MAPH ‘13) is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Co-Founder/CEO of Three Spinners Inc., a new non-profit which works to provide food, clothing, and shelter for Syrian refugees admitted into the US. 

Alexandra kindly agreed to answer the mentors’ questions about the work Three Spinners does, her Ph.D. program in Comp. Lit., her time in MAPH and her advice to current MAPHers. You can read her responses below, and find contact information for Three Spinners at the end of the article!

Could you tell us a little about the non-profit that you recently founded, Three Spinners, and the work that it does?

In January 2016, my colleagues and I co-founded Three Spinners Inc., a charitable organization based out of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, with the purpose of advocating for human rights that are being violated amidst the chaos ravaging Syria on an unprecedented level.  Our organization provides not only the very basic needs of food and shelter, but fosters and facilitates educational opportunities such as English language instruction and job training.  Generous members of the Champaign-Urbana community are opening their doors to refugees accepted into the US and offering their homes to incoming families and individuals.  Basically, if you supply the space, we will provide the rest.  Drawing from a multitude of resources in our community and charitable monetary donations, we are creating a network of support for those in desperate need of safety.  By hosting a series of ongoing food, clothing, and item drives and working in conjunction with local businesses, restaurants, non-profit organizations, etc., we are establishing Champaign-Urbana as a self-sustaining community with the resources to provide for refugees in need.

Our foundational principles are simple: we believe that no individual should ever be persecuted on the basis of religion, race, or gender; no child should ever be subjected to violence or hunger; and no man or woman should be denied their basic human rights to food, shelter, safety, and education.  While our housing process is non-discriminatory, our first priority is families with children.


What drew you to further graduate studies in Comp Lit, and what kind of academic projects and questions are you currently working on at the University of Illinois?

 My time at the University of Chicago was ultimately what both challenged and reinforced my decision to pursue further graduate studies in Comparative Literature.  As everyone reading this well knows, the UChicago MAPH program is rigorous to say the least.  I came to Chicago from a relatively small liberal arts school in Los Angeles, so being thrown into the belly of the research beast really made me consider moving away from a career in academia.  While I loved my courses and advisors at UChicago, I wasn’t quite convinced an even more research-intensive PhD program was the right choice for me.  After I graduated from the MAPH program in 2013, I moved to Poland for a number of months to pursue some language training and independent writing projects I had begun in one of my poetry classes at UChicago.  I ended up meeting a librarian/archivist from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Lublin who ended up being a great resource since I had been considering museum work pertinent to the Holocaust.  The more we discussed career goals and trajectories, the more I found myself talking about my MAPH thesis project and related research I wanted to conduct in the future.  Whether it was museum work or a position in the professoriate I was after, it was clear to me after that conversation that my scholarship really thrived in an academic environment, not to mention if I wanted a shot at working in Holocaust archives, it would be a long shot without a PhD and three or four languages under my belt.  After my time abroad, I came back to the states, filled out my PhD applications, and eventually moved out to the cornfields in Champaign.

As a PhD student, it’s rare to be able to talk about the projects you are working on without any funding on the line, so forgive me if I’m a little over-eager to share some of my current research endeavors.  I work in Polish, Spanish, German, and American literatures and languages, but predominantly on Polish poetry.  My dissertation, entitled “‘Where foot knocks against/the unburied bones of kin’: Topographies of Memory in Mass Graves in Poland and Spain,” identifies and refashions a critical point of convergence between Poland and Spain’s national histories under the umbrella of Holocaust and Memory Studies.  My current research has landed me at an intersection between the poetry of witness that began to surface in the immediate wake of the Holocaust in Poland and more recent depictions of Franco’s mass executions in documentary and photography from modern-day Spain.  Immediately following the end of WWII and the collapse of the concentrationary universe on Polish soil, survivors began the Sisyphean task of reassembling the history of a people intended for annihilation.  Witnesses sifted through the rubble of Babel to reconstruct a language that could speak of Auschwitz, ovens, mass graves, and the mechanized murder that had ravaged the Jewish population of Europe, producing volumes of poetry that were initially met with opposition by the general populace or, at best, apathy.  Less than a decade before the Second World War in Poland, Spain faced its own internal crisis, “La Guerra” (the Spanish Civil War), with the institutionalized massacre of Republicans at the hands of the Nationalists/Rebels under Franco.  Perpetrators were mindful of the evidence of these summary executions, often concealing the corpses of victims in mass graves in both remote forest-laden areas and also in cities and towns in which the shootings took place.  Only within the last decade has the weight of “La Guerra” on the fabric of Spain’s topography become a topic ripe for inquiry with the recent excavations of these mass graves, but the process of distinguishing propaganda from scholarship has grown increasingly difficult to navigate.  The resistance to literary and visual depictions of memory in Poland and Spain poses a multitude of questions at the crux of my research, questions that revolve around the representations of the physical and metaphorical body in mass graves and the sociological, historical, and political implications of their documentation and/or exhumation.


How did your experience MAPH impact upon your career choices, both in graduate school and the non-profit sector?

As I mentioned before, my experience in MAPH helped me evaluate the right career path for me.  As far as the impact the program has had on my graduate studies, in retrospect I feel like I walked away from MAPH with a really solid foothold in critical theory that helped build the foundation for a lot of my PhD research.  Additionally, the research methodologies employed in our preceptor meetings and in the classroom set me up for success at another R-1 institution.  MAPH was my introduction to what real literary scholars and historians looked like and it gave me the tools to climb the ladder that I hope will lead me into those ranks in the coming years.

In terms of the program’s impact on my career choice in the non-profit sector, I have always been involved in community service organizations and activities and there was no shortage of them at UChicago.  There were always opportunities to get involved in Chicago communities that really benefited from local non-profit efforts and contributions, which helped keep my feet on the ground throughout the MAPH program.  I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but when you’re in the throes of your thesis, you sometimes forget to look up from your books and remember there’s a world outside the brick and ivy and the community service opportunities at UChicago gave me a productive outlet, especially since my research material topics are so heavy.

What does your role at Three Spinners look like on a day-to-day basis?

At the moment, it’s a lot of hurry up and wait.  I spent a lot of time over this last winter break brainstorming ways to provide some sort of rescue and relief effort to aid in the Syrian refugee crisis, and eventually resolved to starting with a community food drive.  After pitching the idea to a colleague in the Comp Lit Department, she and her husband jumped on board and after we saw the amount of interest expressed by fellow students and local businesses, we realized that we could do something much bigger.  We registered our organization with the Secretary of State the next day, submitted all of our paperwork to the Attorney General and IRS, and launched our website just a few weeks later.  Right now I’m really focusing on community outreach and strategizing/logistics.  A lot of state representatives in the U.S. have expressed their unwillingness to shelter refugees, so we’re working on creating a self-sustaining community independent of government funding that can support a community of refugees. The last few weeks have been a lot of phone calls, emails, and office visits to businesses and individuals that have volunteered to host food barrels, run item/clothes drop-off centers, provide housing, host fundraisers, etc.  Once we have the final approval from the Attorney General, it’s all plug and play.  The day I get that letter in the mail, we’re delivering food barrels to our volunteers and accepting, sorting, and storing material donations so that we can get a better estimate of how many refugees we can support for up to one year.  The sooner we have the resources in order, the sooner we can reach out to the Department of State and get families in need to a supportive and safe environment.

How have you integrated your academic, political and creative interests into your career?  How would you suggest that current students think about this for their future?

Honestly, I’m still figuring out how all of these things weave into the career tapestry I want to create, but that’s part of the graduate school journey.  The beauty of working in Comparative Literature is that there’s no limit to the kinds of literature, film, and information I have access to.  I read a few English translations of Tadeusz Różewicz’s poetry years ago and decided I was going to learn Polish.  Now I work on Polish poetry.  This last year I couldn’t read most of the Nazi documents I was investigating for a research project and needed translation programs just to get by.  Now I’m learning German.  While my career choices have been in flux for several years, the constants have remained: I enjoy research and historical investigation, I embrace crossing linguistic borders as a polyglot, I am deeply invested in advocating for human rights, and I can’t live without poetry.  None of these things fit neatly into a career package, so you have to write your own job description.  Working in academia as a student and teacher as well as branching out into the non-profit sector allows me to create the career I think would most contribute to the world instead of molding myself into a prepackaged one.  That is my advice for students that have not yet found a path that calls out to them or that are struggling to tailor themselves to the job market’s expectations.  Of course you have to be realistic about your prospects, but don’t carve your edges to fit into a ready-made puzzle.  If you haven’t found your niche, build your puzzle around the pieces you already have.

What advice would you give to current MAPHers interested in working in or founding a non-profit, or to those interested in a hybrid career?

You don’t need much to start a non-profit, so don’t hesitate.  Anyone pursuing that field of work, presumably, already has admirable intentions since we all know no one is going to strike it rich in non-profit work.  That’s not why we’re in this.  We’re in it to make a difference and to repair pieces of the world that perhaps we didn’t break, but need healing nonetheless. Three Spinners Inc. started out as a maybe-I’ll-start-a-food-drive-or-something kind of idea that, after a conversation with a friend over tea, became something that will change hundreds (hopefully eventually thousands) of lives.  Start building your network of resources now; you’re in the best place you could possibly be in at a university.  There is such a diversity of talents, skills, expertise, etc. among students and professors.  You can literally find at least one person in any given classroom that speaks a different language, grew up in another country, is pursuing a degree in law/medicine/education, etc.  Truly, all you need is an idea (and the ability to run without sleep for a while), and you can get your project’s wheels off the ground.  There are never too many warriors for social justice.

You can read more about Three Spinners via their website here, visit them on Facebook here or subscribe to their Newsletter here. Below are the contact details for the Three Spinners team – don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to learn more!

Alexandra van Doren

Meagan Smith

Timothy King



Managing Winter Quarter Stress Part Two: Wellness

Investing your time in relaxing activities and involving yourself in the greater Chicago community are both things that you can do to greatly improve your outlook and overall winter-quarter experience. Below you’ll find a quick list of activities that are a must try for combating winter stress.

Wellness & Relaxation
Drop in on one of these events once, twice or weekly.

Tea & Pipes – Wednesday at 4:30-5 pm (but tea is served as early as 4!)

Let your brain turn off for a half hour and relax to the sound of gentle, relaxing pipe music. Then, refreshed and well caffeinated, return to the library to finish studying, guilt-free. Most people, myself included, would spend the same amount of time mindlessly browsing the internet.
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MLK Events & Other Happenings

Happy second week! Now that we’re well and truly into the swing of winter quarter, we’re lucky enough to have a break from classes next Monday for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (Fun Fact: his birthday is actually on Friday. MLK shares his birthday with Danish footballer Nicolai Jørgensen and Latvian basketball player Aija Putniņa, whereas January 18, of course, is the birthday of 16th-century Italian-English composer Alfonso Ferrabosco the elder.)

Anyway, if you feel like doing something fun and productive with your day off, then you’ve come to the right blog post! The university has loads of events this weekend, from a ceremony in the chapel to a huge variety of great service events. The links below should help you to plan an excitingly elongated wintry weekend.

Today, Monday 11th at 6 p.m in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the university will hold its annual MLK Commemoration Celebration. Van Jones, CNN Contributor and Author, will offer MLK2016.web_.900x400.x2.05the keynote address.  The program also features a conversation with special guest Nikki Giovanni, Poet and Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech University, and Theaster Gates, Professor in the Department of Visual Arts and the College and Director of Arts + Public Life. Find out more about this event here!

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MAPH City Farm visit – Prepare to get muddy!


Last year’s MAPH cohort at the City Farm

City Farm is an urban farm located in between the Loop and Lincoln Park, and is a start-of-year MAPH tradition of sorts. On Wednesday 9th September (four days before our opening BBQ and film screening!) we’ll visit the farm and volunteer for a couple of hours, hanging out with their chickens and weeding vegetables. In previous years we’ve found this is a great way to explore Chicago’s public transit for the first time, get out of Hyde Park, meet fellow MAPHers and do something active and helpful for the Chicago community. The visit to the City Farm is free and all new MAPHers are welcome. This will be the first of several MAPH service events throughout the year – for instance, in the past we’ve done trips to the Chicago Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity Build Days, which have proved to be great opportunities to get out the library and do something constructive within the community with fellow MAPHers and mentors.

On Wednesday 9th, we’ll meet in the MAPH Lounge at the Classics Building on campus before venturing up to the farm on public transport, so this is a great chance to start on the CTA and show off your new Ventra card (by the way, if you don’t have one already the best places to buy these are probably CVS or Walgreens!). After working in the garden (in comfortable clothes and shoes, sunscreen, and maybe a straw hat?), we’ll take the Red Line back down to Hyde Park together.

Below are some tips from City Farm themselves on what to expect from the day:


Green-fingered MAPHers on the City Farm (not pictured – green fingers)

Farming is hard work! Come prepared to get dirty and sweaty. You may expect to do things like:

  • Weeding (lots of weeding)
  • Tilling the soil
  • Hauling & spreading resources like compost, mulch, or straw
  • Picking up garbage (it is an Urban Farm after all!)
  • Washing equipment
  • Transplanting seedlings or thinning sprouts in the beds

What to Bring

It is super important to be prepared for the weather on the farm. In Chicago, the weather can be unpredictable! Make sure to check the weather the morning of your visit, but be prepared for a sudden change in temperature. It happens.

  • Boots are recommended (even in the summer!)
  • Headgear and/or sunscreen if you need them
  • A water bottle
  • Work gloves (we have extras of these if needed)
  • Rain gear (when appropriate)

What City Farm Provide


Weeding on the farm

We want your visit to be memorable, informative, and inspiring. Our farmers will give you a tour of our operation, including hoop houses, compost, wash/processing area, etc. before putting you to work. We’ll also talk about our mission and impact in Chicago. We’ll encourage you to taste the food that we’re growing. Plus, we’ll provide a snack.

Shoot an email to Jess at if you think you can make it, just so we can get an idea of numbers. We’ll meet outside the Classics building at 11am before embarking on an adventure on the 55 bus, Red Line and through downtown Chicago. We hope to see you there!

Your Mentors

Closing Out Colloquium

Most of you have probably registered for classes by now- congrats! Please keep stopping by and telling us what classes you’re taking and how you like them! It is always fun to hear about new courses, different departments, and overall life at U of C.

Before the Fall Quarter officially begins next Monday, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

D0117EF4445036DFA797BE700A836EC2*Volunteer Referral: Fall is a great time to start volunteering. Although this quarter sees you adjusting to UChicago and life as a graduate student, this quarter also has a lighter course load than the Winter (and better weather).

Get in touch with the University of Chicago Service Center to set up an appointment- it is low key and low stakes. They will talk with you about your interests and then recommend service partners for you. Don’t miss on the opportunity to leave the ivory tower and get to know a different side of Chicago.

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MAPH Meet Ups

Hey Guys,

Here is a list of some upcoming events, where you can meet other incoming MAPHers, see fun parts of the city, and take a break from unpacking boxes. There will be plenty of other events over the next month (orientation panels, Core lectures, etc.), but these are some of the more fun, social events that we have planned. Keep an eye on the blog for more on upcoming events soon!

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Thinking About the Future: Service Edition

There is life beyond the academic community!

Spring Quarter can be an incredibly exciting time – your thesis starts to fall into place, you’ve got the most productive procrastination excuse ever in internship/externship/mentor apps, and it’s finally (finally!) warmer. But it can also be a scary time if (like most people emerging from a graduate program) you’re not totally sure what you want to be doing next year. Looking into those awesome internship, mentor, & externship opportunities is a great place to start, but if you’re feeling daunted or like you want to do some exploring before you commit, looking into volunteer opportunities may be the right choice for you.

Of course, even if you have an awesome sense of what you’d like to be up to next year, you may be feeling (as I did) at this point in the year that your life has been subsumed into the academy/library to the detriment of all things human. As the year winds down (hurtles toward completion?) it might be worth your time to look into volunteer opportunities. It’s incredibly valuable to make connections to organizations you’re passionate about, or alternatively, find out what kinds of work or organizations you don’t like now, as you go into the summer.

But what does this vague “volunteering” thing look like? How do you find the right organization for you, with the right time commitment? Answer: Volunteer Referrals! UCSC at the University of Chicago maintains an up-to-date, well-researched database of volunteer opportunities in Chicago, and they are happy to help match you with the right organization.

And, as always, come talk to your Mentors – about careers, the future, rad volunteer organizations in Chicago, your thesis, or literally anything else.

Service Match Community Partner Profiles

Get access to all of Chicago!

Get access to all of Chicago!

If you are interested in getting involved with the Hyde Park community while gaining skills and experiences that will doubtless be useful to you after MAPH, please be sure to read Keri’s blog post about Service Match from last week.  We now have the full list of Community Partners & volunteer opportunities for this year’s program, so please read on for brief descriptions of the opportunities available.  There are some pretty amazing ones. You can also find the application online here.

Also, a reminder:  Crystal Coats will be in Classics 110 to talk/answer questions about Service Match this Wednesday, September 18 at 10:30 am.  We strongly recommend that you attend if you are thinking about applying for any of these opportunities.

Coppin Community Center/ Coppin AME Church

5627-33 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637

Description of Volunteer Opportunities Available: Grant Writing, Policy Research, Youth Education, Community Development, Community-based Events, Computer Literacy, Literacy Programs Continue reading