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'Road Scholars' program helps professors see the state

By Stephanie Shenouda, Managing Editor
Published May 14, 2014

While spring and summer semesters are typically an opportunity for students to pursue their interests outside of the classroom, the University’s Michigan Road Scholar Tour program allowed 30 faculty and staff to explore the state of Michigan last week.

In its fifteenth year, the MRS program aims to connect the University teaching body with people working in various fields — including education reform, medicine and organic farming — and open their eyes to the places in-state students hail from with which they might not otherwise be familiar.

The group’s five-day tour included a trip to the General Motors plant in Lansing, the Grand Rapids Medical Institute, the tribal lands of Gun Lake, a factory in Kalkaska and a clinic for the poor in Traverse City. The professors also visited a community college in Petoskey, an organic farm in Sault Ste. Marie, high school students in Midland and leaders of the Detroit-based nonprofit, Focus: HOPE.

Jim Kosteva, community relations director for the University’s office of government relations, said the program works to provide outreach opportunities for the faculty and staff with regards to economics, government, culture, health and other aspects of life that may be different from Ann Arbor’s. It aims to foster an inclusive environment among colleagues and encourage collaboration and interdisciplinary activities between those whose interests might not normally overlap.

“The MRS program is kind of a five day orientation to the state of Michigan, to help University professors to better understand the environment and education as a public university and how we fit in and contribute to public service,” Kosteva said.

He added that currently “relatively few” number of universities or colleges offer programs similar to MRS, though it was modeled after other schools, and the University does not claim to have conceptualized the program.

Comprehensive Studies Lecturer Mark Conger said he especially enjoyed meeting new people in various fields of study around the state and admired how people really pulled out all the stops for the University’s travelers. He said the most impactful aspects of the trip were the stops at high schools in Midland and Grand Rapids, where the administrators are working to change the educational climate.

“When meeting a lot of people, the first thing they would tell all of us was whether they rooted for our team or Michigan State during the football season, so it became clear that football is generally the first connection for a lot of people when they think about our University,” Conger said.

He said he hoped these meetings have “changed the perception” of those who haven’t been to the University before.

Conger added that he’s lived in Ann Arbor for the 20 years that he’s been working for the University and understands how Ann Arbor can become an “island” for its inhabitants because of all that’s going on in the city. For this reason, he said the program is important because it can provide an “eye-opening” experience, especially in cities that are struggling with issues such as poverty, homelessness and access to educational opportunities.

Conger added that he was also impressed by the people of Focus: HOPE, the nonprofit dedicated to improving the city of Detroit, and how they “didn’t dwell … but didn’t try to hide the bad parts,” while working to make a difference.

Amby Gallagher, assistant professor of clinical nursing, said the potential for networking and learning opportunities sparked her interest in the program. The week exceeded her expectations, as she got to see “what was really happening” around the state.