As a senior in high school deciding on which university to attend, I only had one non-negotiable criteria: must not be near home. I’m from Flint, Michigan, and as I say to people who may not know about the reputation of Flint, it’s like a smaller version of Detroit.
As Wikipedia describes it, “Flint has been ranked among the ‘Most Dangerous Cities in the United States,’ with a per capita violent crime rate seven times higher than the national average. The city was under a state of financial emergency from 2011 to 2015, the second in a decade.”
Despite living on the outskirts of the city in the suburbs (let’s face it, in the white-flight areas), the effects of living in a low socioeconomic and potentially dangerous area infiltrated my life. My high school had the classic “the gym teacher is also the art teacher” kind of conundrum. My family had to drive out of the way to the next town for groceries because slowly but surely the stores around us closed. It was either that or go to the store in the “bad” part of town.
In high school, I had the feeling that I had to get out now, or I thought that I never would. I knew I could save money by going to one of the local colleges or universities, but I would still be in the same disadvantaged area. I saw no future for myself in Flint. I saw living in fear of walking out of a grocery store at night, as my grandmother was when she was thrown to the ground and robbed. I saw laughing off another homicide in the news with uneasy apprehension.
But, like Detroit, that is not the whole story of the city. I don’t want to paint Flint as a city devoid of anything positive — that wouldn’t be fair. There is definitely good, as all of my friends at University of Michigan-Flint, Kettering University, Baker College and Mott Community College (all in Flint!) can attest to. There is the Flint Cultural Center, which provides great art, music and theatre community events and education. There is the Flint Public Library with all of its glorious books. Downtown Flint is beautiful, with its iconic iron archways and brick lanes lined by historic buildings.
Flint just wasn’t for me, though. Despite the good, I felt the negatives overshadowed it. It didn’t help that there is a strange complacency, at least in my community, that “this is how it is and this is how it will always be.” People shake their heads at the violence yet just turn the channel when they’re tired of hearing about this week’s shootings rather than doing something to combat it. I didn’t want to be OK with simply shrugging these things off and tailoring my life to avoid them.
Even though Ann Arbor may physically be only an hour drive away, it feels like another world. Like other first generation students and those from lower socioeconomic areas might feel, university life was strangely foreign. Supported by a single mother, I struggle with having less capital than the general U of M population (sorry friends, $50 is nowhere near “cheap” for me) and feeling generally unprepared. I remember in the first few weeks of college being so impressed and intimidated at the way that people articulated in speech, even in everyday conversations, that I was afraid to speak at all.
One friend, who attended the same high school as me and now also attends the University, once expressed that she felt guilty for leaving so many friends behind to deal with Flint and its hardships. This sentiment surprised me, as it was something I had honestly never thought of. It stuck with me, and I realized it was a great way to articulate a feeling I couldn’t pin down.
A feeling that had me caught between never really wanting to go back but anxious to reach out to friends in Flint dealing with broken families. A feeling that made me wonder why I chose to study international issues at the University rather than focus on serious issues right in my backyard. It was guilt for not doing more with the resources I have now. It was guilt for complaining about all of this when I wasn’t from the “real Flint” and subjected to gang violence and serious blight, which are very real things for a lot of residents. It was guilt for getting out when others couldn’t.
However, I can’t feel guilty for the privileges I’ve been afforded. I should not feel guilty for doing what’s best for me. With luck and a whole lot of scholarships, I am very happy to have been provided the opportunity to attend this amazing university in Ann Arbor. I feel so confident and safe and I’ve made the best of friends. I commend all who stay in Flint, doing good works and trying to move the city forward. I commend all of the hard workers in Flint, just trying to make a living and make a good life for themselves and their children. But for me, I think leaving was one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself.