Val Buchanan makes it her mission to help students engage beyond the campus bubble


Maddie Burakoff/Daily Senior Staffer

Val Buchanan. Buchanan, who works in the Leadership Development and Community Engagement office, serves as a “matchmaker” between NU students and community partners in Evanston and Chicago.

Maddie Burakoff, Monthly Editor

Growing up, Val Buchanan didn’t feel like she really had a hometown. After bouncing around the country for family moves, college and career opportunities, Buchanan, 46, feels she’s partly from Michigan, Texas, Missouri, California and Massachusetts.

Since she joined Northwestern’s staff in April 2016, though, Buchanan — or “Wildcat Val,” as she’s dubbed herself on Facebook — said she’s fallen in love with the Chicagoland area and plans on sticking around for a long time. And now, she’s made it her goal to connect NU students with their own temporary home.

“At Northwestern, so much of our time and energy is spent on learning our disciplines and research pursuits,” Buchanan said. “And yet, so many of the things that help us figure out who we want to be in the world, and what we want to be about, come through … experiences that we have with our neighbors.”

Officially, Buchanan works as NU’s assistant director of leadership development and community engagement. In simpler terms, she wants to make sure students interact with their neighbors beyond campus limits — for example, by organizing service days, bringing in speakers and advising service-oriented student groups.

The role is a little like being a matchmaker, said Buchanan. Sometimes, she’s in her office on the third floor of Norris University Center — a bright space near The SOURCE brimming with event flyers, stacks of books and souvenirs from all over the world — meeting with student leaders and school administrators to find new ways to engage.

Other times, she’s out in Evanston and Chicago, building relationships with groups that are already addressing issues she cares about — like serving meals with food bank A Just Harvest or cleaning out an old classroom at local public school Gale Community Academy in Rogers Park.

Two years ago, Buchanan helped launch the neighbor2neighbor program, which focuses on connecting NU students with Rogers Park through dialogue events (“Justice Talks”) and service days (“Justice Walks”). Buchanan has personal stakes in this small slice of the city, as she lives in the neighborhood and is an elected council member at Gale.

Because she’s a resident of Rogers Park, Buchanan said she is attuned to the tricky dynamics involved with bringing NU students, who often come in with varying degrees of power and privilege, to serve the community. She said the key to building good service partnerships involves shrugging off preconceptions and listening to what residents really want.

“If you’re entering a community that is not your own, there has to be a lot of questioning around how your presence is impacting people, what identities you hold,” Buchanan said. “To come as a learner, to have humility, to really sit at the feet of people who are living in a particular place and learn from them … those are great guideposts for any kind of engagement.”

SESP senior Arzu Singh, co-chair for the Chicago Undergraduate Program, said she worked closely with Buchanan to plan the week of service and learning for incoming first-year students. During this year’s CUP, she said Buchanan was always the first to offer up coffee to exhausted counselors or swoop in to care for a sick “CUPper.”

Buchanan comes into every situation with “energy and optimism” and treats her student collaborators as equal partners, Singh added.

“Even though she’s crazy busy, when you’re sitting with her, you truly feel like you have her undivided attention, which I think is super rare,” Singh said. “She has this inner glow that lights up her eyes and makes her face shine.”

Kelly Benkert, NU’s director of leadership development and community engagement, added that Buchanan is one of the hardest-working people she’s ever met. She’s always willing to go the extra mile to support students, Benkert said, recalling how Buchanan ran around Norris in an inflatable T-Rex costume for last year’s Project Pumpkin — a Halloween event for Chicagoland children.

“She is optimistic and friendly and warm, and that comes from a place of her really caring and loving the work that she does,” Benkert said. “You can’t fake that kind of belief that your work makes a difference.”

Outside of work, Buchanan keeps up with a wide variety of hobbies, from jamming on guitar and djembe to running and playing softball. She loves to travel and read, and her office is stacked with relevant nonfiction titles like Eve Ewing’s “Ghosts in the Schoolyard” and Kevin Coval’s “A People’s History of Chicago.”

But it’s her job — interacting with optimistic young people, building relationships and serving her neighbors — that really brings her alive, Buchanan said.

“I think of myself as a community developer, and a person who is committed to a set of values,” she said. “I don’t really feel like I work. I feel like my work is a part of a greater life purpose and life calling.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @madsburk