People in Houghton, a town in the Upper Peninsula, only wake up at 4 a.m. to do one of three things: plow snow, watch the sunrise or catch one of the two daily flights from Houghton County Memorial Airport to Chicago O’Hare.
My intention to watch the sunrise drew me to wake up at 4 a.m. in July 2017. I gathered my siblings to drive “up north” — an hour drive maximum or you’ll end up in Lake Superior — to Bare Bluff, a hike looking east over the lake. Our little pack hiked all the way to the top of the bluff, looked out on the calm freshwater and watched the sun slowly illuminate the trees.
Many at the University of Michigan consider Traverse City or Mackinac Island to be “up north,” but for us in Houghton, that’s not the real “up north.” For us, the real “up north” is the Keweenaw Peninsula and the beautiful sunrise that comes up on Bare Bluff, over Superior’s horizon. When introducing myself to other University students, I take pride in telling them that I’m from the U.P. I mention the 300 inches of snow from the previous year, describe the beautiful landscapes and detail the two-hour drive to Target and my orthodontist’s office in Marquette.
While the U.P. is my original home, the University has become my second one. I have found comfort here at the University over time, becoming accustomed to walking the campus, watching sporting events, going to class and working at The Daily. Houghton, my home in the U.P., will always be comfortable, but here at the University, I have found comfort along with opportunity — professional, academic and social. The footprint of the University extends across the globe, and the faculty and resources are world-renowned with a massive student body of students from across the U.S. and the world.
But as a premier institution of higher education, founded with the goal of providing opportunity to college-aged students in the state of Michigan, how does the University associate with prospective students in the U.P.? How does the University breach the geographical divide to reach U.P. students who are so far away? How does it help them once they are at the University? What role does the University have as the state’s flagship institution?
These two communities are certainly different. The University and greater Ann Arbor is far more liberal, relatively more diverse and certainly less snow-laden. The Upper Peninsula, which has 29 percent of the landmass in the state but just 3 percent of the population, is isolated from the rest of the state by the Mackinac Bridge. Many U.P. residents live closer to the capital of Wisconsin than to Lansing.
This relative isolation leads to limited travel and exposure, which can make a transition to life in Ann Arbor different for Yoopers. For many including myself, Ann Arbor doesn’t even seem like Michigan. But unlike some, I have fortunately been able to travel and gain exposure to life in urban areas with diverse populations. The culture shock of a more liberal, larger, diverse Ann Arbor was a learning curve, but the adjustment period for me was short.
When I submitted my deposit to the University of Michigan, I’d only seen the campus once, at night. I visited a family friend in 2013 and we watched Trey Burke hit the game-tying three against Kansas in the Elite Eight. Later, I figured out we watched in a lounge in Alice Lloyd Residence Hall and shouted, “Go Blue!” at every person in the Diag. But other than those four hours, I hadn’t seen the University — not even in daylight.
Three months later, my mom dropped me off at East Quad Residence Hall for freshman orientation. I nervously joked I should have gone to Michigan Technological University in my hometown. That day, I wondered why I chose the University. I’d seen Washington University in St. Louis in the daylight, I’d strolled around what George Washington University can call a campus in the middle of Washington D.C. Hell, I’d even walked around the University of Virginia over a high school winter break. So why was I being dropped off for my freshman orientation in Ann Arbor?
Part of it was cost-benefit analysis — the University was by far the cheapest option and either a better school or an equal one to all the ones I listed above (though I could have celebrated a national basketball championship this year if I’d gone to Virginia). I also knew I wanted a school that didn’t make me feel like I still lived in Michigan, so the University made sense because Ann Arbor felt so different from the Michigan I knew and it still allowed me to pay in-state tuition at a world-class university.
I knew that the University had a broad scope of resources and opportunities in every possible academic field, which allowed me to take a shot in the dark when I submitted my enrollment deposit. I knew if I somehow wanted to switch into engineering, I’d enter a top-five program. I ultimately ended up in the Ford School of Public Policy, which has graduate programs ranked first in public policy analysis. But I realized the consequences of my shot-in-the-dark decision when the culture shock finally hit at East Quad in mid-July, and later again at South Quad Residence Hall in early August. It was more a realization I was outside of my comfort zone, but I credit much of my eventual adjustment to the University to my parents, who took great lengths to travel and visit family when we were kids.
My story is one of many Upper Peninsula students going to college, here at the University or anywhere else in the state and the country.
In thinking about U.P. students and the University, I immediately thought of my friend David Alger. Alger was one of our three high school valedictorians, and was admitted to the College of Engineering at the University. But despite his admittance, Alger currently studies chemical engineering at Michigan Tech in the Houghton area where we grew up.
Alger is the quintessential Yooper. On his Instagram, you can find photos of beautiful areas he’s hiked, massive fish he’s caught and even a couple deer he’s snagged on opening day of hunting season, often in a few feet of snow. Now, I personally like to hike, and fishing seems fun, but Alger takes these activities and others to the peak of an outdoorsman. His answer to why he chose Michigan Tech and the U.P. was simple — don’t leave what you love.
“I really loved living here, and still love it,” Alger said. “That was a huge part of it. I didn’t want to move away.”
Too often, U.P. students are eager to move away and fail to recognize opportunity in the U.P., especially at Michigan Tech. In my experience, other students I’ve met from my area find an allure outside of the U.P. One girl in my driver’s ed class even asked what my favorite New York City borough was, clearly dreaming of living in the Big Apple. But Alger recognized the opportunities he had at home through Michigan Tech, including the Leading Scholar Award at Michigan Tech, which, according to the Michigan Tech website, “Recognizes resident and non-resident high school seniors who have demonstrated outstanding leadership and scholarly achievements both in and outside the classroom.”
“Knowing that I get the scholarship that I already had got at Tech and then I’d come into Tech knowing everything about the campus (helped me decide),” Alger said. “And having a bunch of connections there already. And that kind of weighed in my head like saying, ‘OK, I’m not going to have to spend the time to develop all those things and to try and pay for my school if I just go to Tech and it’s still a really good education.’”
Thanks in part to his valedictorian status, David received this full-ride scholarship to Tech in the town he loved. Money certainly makes these decisions easier, but David also recognizes the social aspects that went into his choice.
“And certainly I figured Tech would be a better fit for me culturally than Michigan would be, just being who I am,” Alger said. “Along those lines, a small town kid is going to be a small town kid. You could try and throw him somewhere, but if he’s really a small town kid, it’s not going to go too well.”
When I came to the University, I made friends with other students in my residence hall, and met students from across campus in the Roosevelt Institute. Ann Arbor might not be so big for students from New York and California, but it has roughly 15 times as many people as Houghton does. In Alger’s case, the University missed out on an outstanding student for cultural, social and personal reasons.
Additionally, the earning potential and career potential needs to be noted in Alger’s decision. According to the Michigan Tech Admissions Office, Tech graduates are in the 90th percentice of early career salaries and currently, Tech graduates earn a median starting salary of $66,400. Through his studies at Tech and the resources available, Alger has landed an internship with manufacturer Georgia-Pacific, which will likely become a full-time opportunity post-grad.
Alger’s girlfriend, Rachel Fuller, a second-year environmental engineering student at Tech, is from Brighton in the Lower Peninsula and also had an opportunity to come to the University, but chose Michigan Tech coming out of community college for financial reasons and personal ones.
“I liked the culture more (of Tech),” Fuller said. “I was given more opportunities and better scholarships up here than at Michigan … I just kind of always had a problem with living in tight cities. With Ann Arbor, the population there is just so compact and crazy that I didn’t really like that type of ‘busy all the time’ lifestyle.”
Fuller referenced the constant busyness and pressure dynamic that other U.P. students and students from other universities are acutely aware of at the University. This and the more outdoorsy nature of Michigan Tech pushed her to the U.P.
In contrast with Alger and Fuller, there are many U.P. students who do choose to study here at the University — I sought them out in our “Marquette Wolverines” Facebook group. Olivia Anderson is a junior at the University studying history and communication studies. Hailing from Munising, a smaller town three hours east of Houghton, Anderson saw the University’s size as a benefit.
“I … hated how small like U.P. communities are,” Anderson said. “The kind of bubble effect that happens in the U.P. is something that really bothers me. And when I came to Ann Arbor it reminded me a lot of … Madison (Wis.). It reminded me a lot more of that vibe where there’s a lot of people and stuff to do. It just clicked for me more rather than other places I’ve visited.”
Anderson also highlighted her desire to experience more diversity and be a part of a more progressive community. While many in Ann Arbor term the city a “bubble” that is not representative of “the real world,” the U.P. bubble also exists in isolation. Made up of relatively homogenous white, conservative communities, the U.P. can seem to be reluctant to change at times, especially in towns that lack higher education institutions such as Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan University.
“Especially for me, being from an area that doesn’t have a lot of high academic achievement, is that there’s a lot of pressure here,” Anderson said. “There is an insane amount of pressure that can’t be matched anywhere else. I feel like, and it might just be a thing about where I’m from, but I just haven’t experienced something like this. And even talking to friends that go to Tech or go to Northern or just anything like that, they don't get it.”
I’ve heard this account from other students, no matter if they’re from the U.P. or the East Coast. This is reality on a high-achieving college campus, but Matthew Knudsen, a junior at the University studying molecular and cellular biology, didn’t agree.
Knudsen is a fourth-generation University of Michigan student who grew up going to football games at the Big House. He hails from Escanaba in the southern U.P., and when asked about pressure at the University, he claimed it didn’t affect him as much.
“I don’t know about that,” Knudsen said. “I think it’s just so much bigger than those U.P. colleges. The only difference I can speak on is that you get to meet people from all over.”
Knudsen runs the Yooper Club at the University and lives with a few other U.P. students, but appreciates the opportunity to meet students from every state in the country. And while he and Anderson disagree on the pressure at the University, they both know students who had the chance to attend the University but decided not to.
“I've heard from people who had the ability to come here or applied to come here who are accepted and they're just, ‘I'm glad I didn't go,’” Anderson said.
“My best friend got into Michigan and he’s at Iowa instead,” Knudsen said. “It’s another Big Ten school, and the only reason he didn’t come to Michigan is because he got a full-ride at Iowa … Maybe one girl from my class ended at Central, but financial reasons again.”
Interviews with Alger, Fuller, Anderson and Knudsen showed the variation of interests and experiences U.P. students. They showed the University doesn’t click for everyone and that’s OK. But for the students who do wish to come to the University, what does the future hold?
I interviewed two high school counselors in the Upper Peninsula to discuss past interactions with the University: Susy Talentino of Sault Ste. Marie in the eastern U.P. and Kristen Rundman, my high school counselor in Houghton.
Talentino and Rundman both had positive things to say about the University but noted its academic rigor. Talentino highlighted a lack of recruiting of Sault Ste. Marie students.
“Academic quality, of course, the attitude is that it’s high,” Talentino said. “U-M has tough admission standards. As far as recruiting, we don’t really have any recruiting. We used to have a U-M admissions adviser come here sometimes, but we haven’t had them come in several years.”
“I think that it’s a very challenging school and diverse, it has a diverse population,” Rundman said. “And prepares students well for their future.”
Recruiting at Sault Ste. Marie has slowed, but the University still typically sends a representative to a college fair in Houghton each year. However, Rundman noted the college fair is typically an extremely busy time and it’s hard for students to interface with University representatives. Because of geographic distance, traveling to the U.P. takes a toll for University representatives. However, the lack of representatives poses a problem as the University misses out on talented U.P. students.
I did not meet with a representative my senior year and most of my information came from the internet and mailers I received at home. However, meeting with someone from the University could have reduced the “impostor syndrome” I felt with my acceptance to the University. Impostor syndrome is a horrible little thing where you feel you don’t deserve to be somewhere or in some position or have some achievement. For me, meeting with a representative would have greatly reduced this, but I had to wait until I settled in at the University for it to go away (of course, these things never completely go away). While I pushed through this mental block, the failure of the University recruiting could be damaging other students’ opportunities, which is something Talentino noted in her experiences.
“I feel that it maybe makes some kids feel like U-M isn’t really an option because no one really comes to talk to them about it,” Talentino said.
The University might rely on the Student Ambassadors program to cover this ground. The program involves training current University students, giving them a PowerPoint presentation and having them speak at their high school alma mater. But this relies on current U-M students going back to their high schools, so U.P. high schools with no students at the University suffer. Anderson mentioned previous students from her school going to the University were unwilling to share their experiences with their hometowns.
“I had two people from my high school before me and the people I knew graduating that came here and they just, they exed out completely of their own community,” Anderson said. “They … went to the University of Michigan. No one ever heard from them again. And I just went in completely blind here.”
If University students from the U.P. and other under-contacted areas aren’t willing to go back to their hometowns, the Student Ambassadors program will prove to be ineffective. Because of this, students in the U.P., with its isolation, might not feel ready or up to the challenge of the University. Missing out on visits from representatives because of hectic schedules, or not hearing from a former peer about their experience inhibits the confidence of U.P. students and their likelihood of enrolling downstate at the University.
Talentino had an admissions case where a student she thought was well qualified was denied admission to the University.
“One that still bothers me is a class of 2017 boy who applied to U-M. He had a 4.0 and a really good SAT score, I think it was 13-something,” Talentino said. “And he did not get in and when he told me, I said, ‘I don’t believe you, you screwed something up. Like, you did not click submit on your application or something’, and he said, ‘No, I’m telling you the truth’, and he forwarded me the email he got declining, telling him he didn’t get in. So I’m still floored by that. As a counselor, I see U-M as very competitive as far as being admitted.”
With an increasing number of applicants, admission to the University is becoming more of a crapshoot. Talentino also detailed a perceived advantage for U.P. students that has seemingly fallen by the wayside.
“And I feel like there used to be that kind of legend that if you were from an Upper Peninsula county, your chances of getting into U-M were better because U-M needed kids from all areas,” Talentino said. “That U-M needed kids from rural areas in the U.P. to kind of fill out their, ‘Yes, we are getting kids from all areas of the state.’ But lately, it kind of seems like that’s not as true anymore.”
A University of Michigan admissions counselor was reached out to for comment but was unable to do so.
The undergraduate population of students at the University from the state of Michigan is 16,036. If its student body were to be representative of the state in terms of population distribution, then the University should have nearly 500 U.P. students. It’s unlikely enrollment at the University reaches that number, given Talentino and Rundman both estimated their schools produce between one and 10 U-M students per year. The University does not provide specific admissions statistics for students from the U.P. Far more U.P. students go to the U.P. schools like Lake Superior State in Sault Ste. Marie or Northern Michigan in Marquette or Michigan Tech in Houghton. Rundman noted the growing popularity of community colleges because of the high cost of four-year institutions.
There are no other examples of a state with a top nationally-ranked institution of higher learning that has this isolated a population, and simply no one at the University talks about it. Few students have actually been to the U.P., but it’s there. Its people, its culture, its politics — nearly completely surrounded by water and tucked away in forests, hills and plains. Some of its students stay home and get an education, others go straight to work and a few come to the University of Michigan. If the University can figure out how to offer more financial aid and perhaps changed a “pressure” and “busy” culture, maybe it can snag more of them.