For the first time since it began in Winter 2009 the Semester in Detroit program isn’t just for University of Michigan students. The fall cohort includes six students from Grand Valley State University. But just try to figure out which of the 18 participants are from the university on the western side of the state.
From Day 1, GVSU student Ryan Samosiuk says, the students have blended beautifully in their quest to take in all they can, and be part of the progressive work being done in Detroit through participation in the unique residential learning program that allows students to live, study and work in the city.
“Everyone here has a shared mindset of why we’re here—to seek a more enjoyable way to learn, and to be face-to-face with what you are learning. It doesn’t even come to play that we’re from different schools,” Samosiuk said.
This is just what program leaders hoped would happen; in fact it’s what they expected.
“Students from both schools come from the Detroit area, some from across the state, and even a few from across the country. Together they bring great diversity and perspective to the program,” said Craig Regester, associate director and adjunct lecturer. He said the only giveaway that students are from Grand Valley is when they are stumped by one of the numerous uniquely U-M references or acronyms.
University of Michigan students agree it has been a good experience getting to know and learn alongside the GVSU students.
“It’s been really awesome to get new perspectives on life that are not from [University of] Michigan people,” said Sharie Branch, a junior double major in sociocultural anthropology and African American and African Studies at U-M. “It’s been refreshing to meet people who have a completely different college experience,” she said, noting the political and cultural differences in the two schools’ communities that are only 133 miles apart.
Two separate occurrences more than a year ago led to the pilot collaboration, Regester said. The faculty director from Semester in Detroit and a faculty member from GVSU had started some preliminary discussions through their common association with the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, one of SID’s community partners. But it was a conversation in March 2015 between James Holloway, U-M’s vice provost for global engagement and interdisciplinary academic affairs, and Anne Hiskes, dean of the GVSU Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies, that led to the partnership.
“Civic engagement is one of the core high-impact engaged learning strategies that we pursue at Michigan. Through engagement with a community in Detroit students learn not only about that community and come to understand the urban environment, but also develop their own creativity, ability to collaborate, and learn to engage with others from different backgrounds,” Holloway said. “By bringing students from GVSU into this mix we are enriching the experience for all—the students from both universities and the community in which they live, work and learn.”
Hiskes said her college’s focus on interdisciplinary community-engaged teaching and learning and social justice issues, made Semester in Detroit an attractive opportunity for Grand Valley students.
“I didn’t want them to have just any Detroit experience, but rather this particular kind of Detroit experience with a social justice lens that gets them into the community and working with people who are making a difference,” Hiskes said. “Most GVSU students are from the state of Michigan. A significant percentage of these students have grown up with a limited and biased conception of Detroit and the east part of the state, and have no urban experience.
“This immersive Detroit experience will help break down negative stereotypes, not only of Detroit and its citizens, but also of other urban communities facing similar challenges. Even students who call Detroit or its suburbs ‘home’ will emerge from this experience thinking about their home town in a different way.”
Samosiuk, who hails from Bloomfield Township, just 30 minutes from Detroit, had been to the city countless times throughout his life, but the Semester in Detroit experience has allowed him to explore new areas and see it through different eyes.
“Now that I am living here you get a realization that Detroit has a lot more unique parts than most people tend to think,” he said.
The Grand Valley junior from the Liberal Studies Department is interested in urban planning and will spend his internship working with a non-profit called EcoWorks, which for 35 years has focused on promoting energy conservancy and sustainable development practices. Other GVSU students are working on projects in urban agriculture, arts and creative writing, mentoring for girls, health care, and legal advocacy.
Students start the program by learning about the city’s history and culture. They then develop a work plan in conjunction with community partners before joining with the organizations to dig in on projects in which they hope to make a difference.
Over the nearly eight years of Semester in Detroit, U-M has developed more than 60 community partners who see their co-educator roles as very important. Samosiuk likes that those who are teaching him are people who have lived in Detroit.
“They have been here and lived through it, and offer a much more realistic perspective of the city,” he said.
What he describes matches with what Hiskes hoped the students would learn from the experience.
“I hope that students will develop a deep understanding of challenges facing many of our urban communities and develop skills for addressing complex social issues, particularly those that involve race and class. I hope they are inspired by the community resilience and sustainability initiatives they observe. As an immersive, cohort experience, the program is structured to be absolutely transformative.”