Drew Philp
Detroit Free Press, Page A1
UM Might Tap Detroit as Living Classroom

Instead of studying abroad in England, Taiwan or Chile next year, University of Michigan students might spend a semester living, learning and working in downtown Detroit.

The program, expected to begin in fall 2008, would have students hold internships with community organizations, take classes taught by U-M professors at the school’s Detroit Center and participate in community service and events.

Organizers of the program, who believe it would be the first of such a scope in Detroit, say it would immerse students in the life and culture of Detroit while fostering relationships between community organizations and the university.

The program would allow students to experience Detroit with city residents and leaders, not simply read about the city while in classrooms.

“It was conceived and is being created with the idea of being mutually beneficial to the city and the university,” faculty adviser Stephen Ward said last month.

Local planners are creating the model for this in-depth type of service, but it draws from similar programs elsewhere in the country. Louisiana State University routinely sends students and faculty to rebuild hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, and the University of California, Los Angeles offers students service learning opportunities and internships in Los Angeles.

But the U-M program would be unique because students would forgo the societal comfort of a college campus and go home blocks, not miles, from where they work.

A budget has not been set, and the plan is working its way through channels to formalize it as a sustainable program, but U-M Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Lester Monts said the program is “a sure thing.”

Organizers say they hope the program will open channels between the university and the Detroit community to help further the revitalization of downtown.

The program also has been pitched as a way to promote diversity at U-M after the passage of Proposal 2, the statewide affirmative action ban that bars the use of race and gender in admissions and financial aid decisions by public universities.

Ward said the program is a manifestation of a larger movement in the university and the nation to stop looking at inner cities as laboratories for study and to begin to partner with citizens and organizations for social change.

Alumna Rachael Tanner, 21, of Kalamazoo, a former student in Ward’s Urban and Community Studies class, proposed the idea of a Semester in Detroit as a final class project. Fellow students formed a planning committee in January. Professors and administrative staff helped put the program into motion.

“We have a semester in Washington, D.C. Why not have a semester in Detroit?” Tanner asked. “The culture is so rich, but students spend so little time there.”

The program would support 20 to 30 students and cost about the same as a semester at the Ann Arbor campus. Students would take 15 to 18 liberal arts credit hours studying subjects including the development of urban areas and grassroots responses to urban challenges.

Nick Tobier, a professor in the School of Art and Design who takes university students into Detroit elementary classes, plans to teach in the program.

Tobier said he thinks of Detroit as among the “most productive cultural ecosystems” and wants to bring more students into that atmosphere.

Students would spend the bulk of their time earning class credits at internships with community organizations. Guided by faculty, these students would be expected to secure the internships themselves. In preparation, a student planning committee is working with the university’s Ginsberg Center to contact community groups that might be willing to host internships.

Tim Duperron, interim chief executive officer of Focus: HOPE, said the university’s relationship with his organization has always been positive, and he would love to have Semester in Detroit’s students intern there.

“They certainly have the right mind-set and the right spirit,” he said. “I’m encouraged by this, because it will be done well, not superficially.”

Classes would take place at and internships would be coordinated through the university’s Detroit Center at Woodward Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. The center serves as a university base in the city to conduct research and meet with community partners.

Organizers expect to buy a home near Wayne State University, where students in the program would live.

Western Michigan University has programs sending students to study internships in major U.S. cities, and Michigan State University sends students to Washington, D.C., in a program with internships and class time. None has programs of this scope in Detroit.

“That’s something we’re going to strongly consider in the future,” said Karen Reiff, director of experiential learning at MSU.

Some see this as a way to bridge two disparate communities.

“Having a program would make a big statement that the university is committed to investing in the city,” said senior Megan Hanner, 21, of Whitehall. “I have no doubt that the program would teach students the appropriate way to be invested in a city they’re not from.”

If he weren’t graduating, senior Tom Szczesny, 20, of Bloomfield Township said he would want to spend a semester in Detroit.

“It makes a lot of sense because we’re connected geographically, but there’s a big disconnect between the university and Detroit,” he said. “If you have something like Semester in Detroit, it brings a new awareness of the city.”