Detroit is a city with myriad problems — and an image that's even worse. But colleges and universities in the metro area and beyond are offering an array of classes, service programs and other efforts to bring some perspective to "the dirty D." And by "paying" students with credit hours, some academic institutions can boost the efforts of local organizations addressing the city's challenges.
From the Center for Creative Studies and the University of Detroit Mercy to Wayne County Community College and Oakland University, Detroit-related electives, and sometimes links to Detroit community organizations, are part of the curriculum.
At Wayne State University, for instance, Detroit-focused courses have been a part of liberal arts offerings in at least seven academic majors. In fact, the university has offered such courses for more than 40 years. And through the Irving D. Reid Honors College, Wayne State students can earn service-learning hours, which become credit hours based on the amount of time served with internships.
"Organizations are streamlining their infrastructure. We hope to provide person power and creative juices. And, conversely, if our students become involved in community organizations and public schools, they are more likely to stay in the city," says Elizabeth Barton, faculty adviser for community engagement in the Reid Honors College.
Universities offer diverse approaches to studying Detroit. Whether service learning or course work, students and community members are improving the city from inside.
Marygrove College is the home of the eight-year-old Institute of Detroit Studies. Founded in conjunction with the city's tricentennial, through the Institute, Marygrove students can earn a certificate in Detroit studies.
"Our perspective is to challenge conventional understandings of Detroit, to complicate things a bit," says Thomas Klug, director of the institute.
The institute is known for its Defining Detroit Lecture Series. The series is open to the community and has hosted films, panel discussions and readings by noted authors from Detroit or with ties in the city. Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Eugenides, Lolita Hernandez, Melba Joyce Boyd, Naomi Long Madgett, Angela Dillard, Terry Blackhawk and JoEllen McNergney Vinyard are some of those who've participated. Stranded at the Corner, the Battle to Save Historic Tiger Stadium and Black Bottom and Paradise Valley: The Forgotten Legacy were last year's Defining Detroit Film Series highlights.
One way the University of Michigan is involved with the city is through the Semester in Detroit (SID) program, which began with a three-year commitment in 2008. The program is funded by the U-M's provost office, with additional support from the College of Literature, Science and Arts, the Edward Ginsberg Center for Community and Service-Learning and the Residential College.
Last winter, Semester in Detroit brought 14 students to the city and will increase its numbers to 18 this winter. With the completion of one additional course, students earn a minor in urban and community studies.
Living in the Tower Residential Suites on Wayne State's campus, students take a full course load taught by U-M faculty at the university's Detroit Center on Woodward Avenue. Students also intern 16 hours a week with a Detroit community-based service or arts organization. Electives are available from Wayne State's Geography and Urban Planning and Honors College. Students also reflect on their experiences in weekly seminars.
This past winter, student interns were hosted by state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Alternatives for Girls, WDET, Southwest Solutions, Living Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, Arts and Scraps, Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation, Restaurant Opportunities Center-Michigan, Detroit Eastside Community Collaborative, HUB bicycle shop, Detroit Urban League, Sugar Law Center and Capuchin Soup Kitchen. And more than 50 organizations have already applied to have SID interns this year.
And the two days a week of interning in the community give the students "an incredibly rich context" for discussing the city of Detroit, says Craig Regester, associate director of Semester in Detroit.
Sheleta Reed was a sophomore last winter at University of Michigan when she accepted the challenge of Semester in Detroit. Though from Detroit, she was ready to select a major and get away from the breakneck pace of Ann Arbor. After reflection, she dropped her pre-architecture studies to focus on education.
"When I was in architecture, I wanted to make safe, energy-efficient houses. But no matter how pretty the building is, people need more. If you have educated people, that is what really brings better positives to the city," Reed says.
Reed's internship with the Detroit Urban League proved to be useful to her goals. At the Urban League she tutored high school students and assisted them with the college application process.
"Knowing that I didn't have the strongest math background shapes the path my career will take, and I wanted to help other kids get an advantage. Many of our students were from Detroit high schools and needed to supplement their education to make sure they got the basics," Reed said.
And while students like Reed are deepening connections to their hometown, others may have had little if any contact with residents of the state's largest city.
Take Carolina Rizzo, originally from Uruguay, a Semester in Detroit student who interned with the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. She came away with this impression:
"Detroiters are open and welcoming. They are deeply invested in the communities. They work hard toward a vision that the city will again rise."
Lorena M. Craighead wrote this article while at Metro Times as Michigan Press Association/Michigan Intercollegiate Press Association adviser intern. She is an adviser to student publications at Renaissance High School in Detroit. Send comments to [email protected].