I, like many University of Michigan students, have amassed a collection of Michigan merch. T-shirts, hoodies, flannel pajama pants, beanies: you name it, I have it. Despite this, I rarely wear my merch outside of my dorm. I won’t say that I never do — I am guilty of occasionally repping on game days, or if I wake up 15 minutes before my class on North Campus and need something to wear — but my merch is mostly relegated to lounge wear and laundry days. That is, with one notable exception: weekends when I travel home.
I am originally from La Porte, Indiana, an average mid-sized Midwestern city desperately wanting to be a part of “Da Region“. If you’ve spent any time in the Midwest, you could probably guess most of the following info: its name is borrowed from butchered French, the population is majority Republican and white and the primary life goal of every resident aged 25 or younger is to GTFO. La Porte has plenty of quirks too, such as being the hometown of MuggleNet’s creator, being the (assumed) final resting place of serial killer Belle Gunness and having a literal meat slicer as a high-school mascot. With that said, it has treated me well for the most part. I graduated from its high school with a trove of joyful memories and experiences crafted by dedicated educators, I built lasting relationships with friends and mentors and I still enjoy the vibrant music and art culture found all across the county. My father was born and raised there, and my mother moved to the city from nearby Westville in her 20s; they’ve raised two children in their first home there, through various trials and tribulations not unlike those of my other middle-class peers.
College completion is below the national average in La Porte (according to census data, La Porte is roughly 8-14% behind in the “Bachelor’s degree” and “Bachelor’s degree or higher” categories for the 25 years old or older demographic), mostly as a result of its inaccessibility. La Porte sits between three towns with universities (Valparaiso, Westville and South Bend), yet all are a commute away and not always easy to get to year-round (lake effect snow, Midwest roads, etc.). Thus, young people either default to one of the commuters, avoid college or — if you have the privilege and support to do so — “Go Away”. Despite being described as an academically “high achieving” cohort, my peer groups have been fairly split on going to college, and only a few chose Going Away. “Going Away” usually means picking a state school like Ball State, Indiana State or IU (the state has provided some demographic information, being provided on page 3) — I can count on one hand the friends who went out of state, including myself. The opportunity to transfer to Michigan was a big deal to my family; dinner conversations were filled with coworkers’ and friends’ responses to the news for months. Even now, neighbors and old friends still celebrate my departure from my hometown. Despite seeking a niche arts degree (as opposed to, say, receiving a prestigious engineering degree), attending Michigan elevates me to the level of my hometown’s perception of the University – regardless of why they have that perception.
Like many transfers, students of Color especially, I have found it hard to feel like I belong at the University. There are plenty of communities here, but breaking into the campus culture with what feels like two fewer years than everyone else is intimidating. To me, Michigan is another PWI that I’ll invest a few years into in hopes of developing some meaningful connections. At home, though, few see that. Rather, I am a success story: a graduate who made it into a top public university. With that perception also comes the weight of being a success story not only for yourself or your hometown, but the weight of being a success story for those who directly sacrificed for you to have the opportunities you do. I won’t pretend to have some earth-shattering insight into this idea, as many writers (especially here at MiC) have discussed the topic before. Regardless, only a handful of people on either side of my family have even had the opportunity to go to college, much less Go Away to one. My family is unmistakably working-class, with both of my parents having held two or more jobs throughout their adult lives to provide a stable environment for my sister and me to grow. Yet neither has missed a single concert, recital, play, musical, sports game, etc. that my sister or I were involved with. In fact, both often stepped up to chaperone or volunteer within those activities. This is to say, both of my parents have demonstrated a deep and intentional commitment to my life and my subsequent successes.
The performance of wearing a U-M sweatshirt on my weekend trips home, then, is more than an imitation of school spirit or a subscription to elitist university culture — rather, it is a way in which I attempt to reconcile the tremendous amount of labor and love that materialized as my enrollment here. Sure, I have a comparable list of achievements that I can spout off at family functions — university honors, unique performances, successful research opportunities, etc. — but none of those are nearly as tangible and accessible as the University’s ubiquitous legacy in the Midwest. The “blue of a summer sky” and the “yellow of ripe corn” become windows into a realization of the fruits of my family’s labor, chromatic representations of their various investments into my growth as a student and as a person.
With this understanding comes a new appreciation for University pride and the Maize and Blue for myself; instead of being connected to the merch and its colors through a love for one of the sports teams, or from a legacy alumni relative, the merch symbolizes to me an acknowledgment that my belonging here is valid and meaningful to those who have come before me. The dyad holds the emotional weight of missed opportunities, late nights and double shifts, as well as the traumas of my father’s parents’ move from Arkansas during the late Great Migration. For those who have given some or all to my journey Going Away, I choose to wear the old yellow and blue.
MiC Columnist Cedric McCoy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.