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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Fitting into the city as a University student

By Carolyn Gearig , Daily Staff Reporter
Published June 25, 2014

This is a piece for the Detroit Beat, a new blog at the Daily. Look for the Detroit Beat link on our website in the fall.

Editor's note: Carolyn Gearig is currently enrolled in the Semester in Detroit program

Growing up in suburban Detroit, LSA sophomore Michael Olson was unfamiliar with it and rarely went to the city outside of sporting events and concerts.

But this summer, he began going to downtown Detroit five days a week as one of more than 1,000 interns at Quicken Loans, which employs 8,000 people in downtown Detroit.

LSA senior Jessica Lakind and Public Policy junior Blair Sucher, who both did summer internships in Detroit through the Semester in Detroit Program, have similar stories. Both didn’t really engage with the city until they got to college.

For many University students, Detroit evokes visions of a city past its peak. Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013. Its finances are under the control of emergency financial manager Kevyn Orr until September. Between 2000 and 2010, roughly a quarter of Detroit’s population left the city.

However, despite all that, some University students, such as Olson, Lakind, and Sucher have chosen to look beyond that vision and spend their summer working and living in Ann Arbor’s neighbor to the east.

Geni Harclerode, assistant director of experiential learning and employer development at the University's Career Center, works with experiential learning programs, which she defines as internships, events at workplaces, career fairs and networking events. She said she has seen more and more students seeking out opportunities in Detroit in recent years, and more employers in the city looking for young people.

“A lot of students are really excited by what is possible in that landscape,” she said. “It is a really great place and we’ve seen a lot of interest in people being a part of that.”

Part of Harclerode’s job is organizing half-day immersions at businesses, many of which are in Detroit. Olson decided to apply at Quicken Loans after he participated in one of these immersion programs.

Quicken Loans moved their headquarters from the suburbs of the city to downtown in August 2010, bringing more than 8,000 employees downtown. Five years ago, the company had only 35 summer interns, but since moving it has expanded to over 1,000 in the summer and 150 to 200 in the fall and winter.

“I’ve been amazed by the number of interns applying and interviewing who tell us they’ve heard what we’re doing in Detroit and they want to come be a part of the city’s revitalization,” Vice President of Recruiting Michelle Salvatore wrote in an e-mail. “To really get a feel for everything that’s going on in Detroit you have to be downtown and actually experience it.”

In a reflection of that emphasis, Quicken’s internship program includes events throughout the summer in Detroit along with work. Olson said during his time in the city, he had the opportunity to go on bus tours throughout Detroit, attend Tigers games, tour the Detroit Institute of the Arts and volunteer throughout the city.

“Being down here every day gives you a lot more respect for the city,” he said. “The media gives Detroit such a bed rep and it’s frustrating. I definitely didn’t think the city was as nice as it was going to be. Coming down here and seeing all of the businesses doing so well has given me a positive respect for it.”

Detroit's resurgence, especially when it comes to business success in areas like Corktown, has gained both regional and national attention. Much of Detroit’s resurgence can also be found in Midtown, which boasts five museums, the Detroit Medical Center, more than 40 restaurants, a Whole Foods that opened in 2013 and Wayne State University. Housing occupancy there is at more than 95 percent and the area has experienced more than $1.8 billion in development since 2000.

A short walk or drive down Woodward Avenue, downtown has also seen recent growth and development. Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans founder and chairman, has purchased upwards of 50 buildings with plans for more development, many businesses are moving downtown and the riverfront was recently refurbished.

As Detroit has changed, the University’s connection to it has as well. The Semester in Detroit program, through which students spend winter or spring semester living, interning and taking related classes in Detroit, is in its fifth year. The Detroit Connector, providing free weekend bus service to and from Detroit and Ann Arbor, began running in Fall 2013.

Student organizations like the Detroit Partnership are also involved in Detroit, running weekly volunteer programs in the city and bringing hundreds to sites around Detroit every winter on Detroit Partnership Day. Semester in Detroit, which both Sucher and Lakind are participating in this summer, was started by students in Fall 2006, with the first group of students going to Detroit in Winter 2009. Beyond working in the city— each student interns with a nonprofit— the program places a similar emphasis on immersion.

Students are housed at Wayne State University apartments in Midtown and the program includes classes in Detroit history, a seminar examining the internships and an optional creative writing class. During the winter semester, students can opt to take classes through Wayne State University. Students initially began the program in Fall 2006 and the first group of students went to the city in Winter 2009.

However, as students have gotten more involved in the city, questions of how to navigate through the impacts of burgeoning expansion, and its effects on the city, have also sprung up.

Sucher, who is a part of Semester in Detroit this year, is from Farmington Hills, about 25 minutes from Detroit by car. Growing up, her exposure to Detroit was limited to Eastern Market, sporting events, a few restaurants downtown and a family business located on the east side. Her parents' families were a part of the "white flight" in the 1960s and didn’t often go to Detroit. In college, however, Sucher got involved in the Detroit Partnership and became more interested in the city.

As a policy intern with Community Development Advocates of Detroit, Sucher worked with the organization’s public policy advocacy project to educate the public about city council and other matters throughout the city.

“It’s been a really great way to start to understand the nuances of the problems that we hear about on the news and hear the backstory behind them,” she said. “There's a lot more going on than what you see on the news and thats been something that I've always wanted to understand.”

However, though Sucher praised the communities in Detroit, she said she was unsure if she could see herself living there one day and felt conflicted about the rapid development occurring near her internship and apartment in Midtown.

She said she sees Detroit as a city with many people who struggle to afford basic necessities, much less the fancy coffee shops, high-end loft apartments and specialized shops popping up in the areas surrounding downtown that cater to a specific, smaller group of higher-income people.

For students with relatively brief stays in the city, she added that can making finding their place in Detroit difficult.

“It’s a hub of gentrification right now,” she said. “I’ve had a hard time navigating that and learning how to be respectful of that. I don’t want to harm the community in any way. I think that it’s not realistic that you're going to feel a part of something after seven weeks. It’s also the fact that I'm taking classes, so I’m with people from the University of Michigan most days. I’m also living in a University apartment complex. I’m not living in a neighborhood."

Sucher said she’s tried to experience as much as possible in Detroit while thinking constantly about her role in the city and its changes.

“I definitely buy the overpriced coffee because that’s the way of life,” she said. “But I’ve definitely tried to think about my actions as much as possible while still being genuine and having authentic experiences.”

She mentioned one class field trip to a local bookstore, Source Booksellers, as particularly illuminative experience. Sucher struck up a conversation with a Detroiter who talked to her class about the city’s history as part of the trip, and ended up meeting her for dinner, seeing her apartment and discussing the issue of gentrification in the city at length.

“Just paying attention to things like that, it really clears some of it up,” she said.

Lakind, from a suburb bordering Chicago, also said interacting with residents of the city through her internship really added to her experience in Detroit, especially since she spent a lot of time with the other students in the program as they all took classes together and lived in the same apartment building.

“People at my internship were amazing, I loved them,” she said. “It’s weird because you don’t have that much interaction with actual Detroiters. It’s really hard to immerse yourself in a city like this. Everyone I’ve talked to, they’re really genuine people. I think people are generally hopeful and continually believe that things will get better. But it’s hard to generalize the people I’ve met. There are so many things going on in the city. I don’t know how you define any city.”

Similar to Sucher, Lakind felt confused about her role in the city. Her father fled Detroit with his family when he was five and her parents both grew up in the suburbs. Growing up, she heard primarily negative things about the city.

“I didn’t realize how many grassroots organizations were popping up all over the city,” Lakind said. “Even in my lifetime there were a lot of things going on here that I just didn’t know about, just because I only heard about the negative.”

As an intern at Healthy Teens, a health clinic for disadvantaged youth located in Midtown, she worked to help plan a conference on health for teens and worked with primarily with African-Americans, which she said as a white female she was originally apprehensive about but realized that her race didn’t play as much of a role as she thought it would

“I've had a lot of self-growth more than anything,” she said. “I think the city has helped me to realize what’s important and what’s not and realize a lot about myself.”

Lakind said for her, seven weeks was not nearly enough time to truly understand the city. Similar to Sucher, at times, she felt confused about her feelings about different areas and how her role contributed to the changing landscapes in Detroit.

“There’s no way you can learn everything about the city in seven weeks,” she said. “It’s a complex place. There is so much going on.”

Although she also found Detroit a difficult landscape to navigate respectfully, Lakind said she would like to live in Detroit after graduation.

“I’m not just going to abandon this place and never come back,” she said. “Using my Michigan education I could just go back to an area that has people with money or I could use it to help people that need help. But it’s hard, because then who am I to say that other people need my help?"

“It’s overwhelming. Once I am able to process it more I’ll be able to understand it more, but I think it takes years and years to truly understand the people and the climate,”she added.

Craig Regester, Semester in Detroit associate director, who spent 18 years living in Detroit, said he hopes to expand the length of the program in the future, but factors like credits and students needing jobs have made things complicated.

“No one college semester fully immerses you in anything,” he said. “It’s certainly as immersive as we’ve been able to come up with so far at the University of Michigan.”

Lakind said she wants more time to gain a better view of the city and the people that live there.

“With Semester in Detroit, it’s such a short period of time,” she said. “We kind of are just entering communities and then leaving. In the back of my head I’m just like, there are some of these people who will probably never come back to Detroit. I feel like it’s not beneficial to come here for a few months, have a little vacation and then never come back.”

Olson, Lakind and Sucher all said they have gained a far richer understanding of Detroit, enough so that they all hope to continue to visit the city during their time at the University.

“I was always told that no one lives in Detroit anymore, but there are a lot of people that still live here,” Lakind said. “You always hear about what Detroit doesn’t have but I never heard about what Detroit does have. I think the problem is that everyone has a single story about Detroit in their head and it’s not a single story. There are so many things going on here.”

Daily News Editor Will Greenberg contributed to this report.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Dan Gilbert's title, as well as the number of buildings he has purchased in Detroit. Gilbert is the founder and chairman, not the CEO, and he has purchased over 50 buildings, not 30.