Growing up in Ann Arbor, I’ve always experienced the state’s steady decline into recession at arm’s length. The University has in many ways buffered this city economically. Although each business and individual is under increasing fiscal pressure, the fabric of the city is strong.

Despite Michigan’s renowned woes, the University has been setting records for fundraising, creating the nation’s fastest-growing endowment over the last 20 years. The amoung of money spent is tangible — construction on campus has reached a fever pitch.

Students usually don’t have means of transportation outside of campus, let alone Ann Arbor. This insulates us from the rest of the state at a time when we need to be aware of what we’ll return to when we leave our ivory tower.

Don’t let me generalize about your experience. Students are finding it more difficult to find jobs and to pay for rent, food and tuition. We don’t need to go to Detroit to find problems. But you can’t deny the stark contrast between these two cities, even though Detroit is a mere 40 minutes away.

Michigan was in recession long before the rest of the country. At the moment, Detroit is synonymous with the failing auto industry and the ripple effect those lost jobs have on Michigan communities. In fact, Detroit’s hardships can be traced to more than a recession or lost auto jobs.

But thankfully, people at the University are beginning to forge opportunities to volunteer or do social justice work, especially in Detroit. The work is certainly only symbolic if it’s not directed by or in collaboration with Detroit residents. When Ann Arbor students get involved on their own, they are showing their commitment to Detroit because they are understand its importance.

The Detroit Partnership creates opportunities for service learning in the city. Its website speaks to the value it places in long-term institutional relationships, reciprocity and reflective self-awareness. Other campus student groups are getting involved, from the labor activist group Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality’s poll-watching in the presidential election to the Ross School of Business’s Net Impact group planting trees with Greening of Detroit this Saturday.

Increasingly, classes have been offered exclusively in Detroit. Some have become a “study abroad” experience. Semester in Detroit brings Wayne State’s campus and Residential College professors together. Each student takes a job in a city community or cultural organization.

Some classes aren’t focused specifically on Detroit, but the city is inevitably brought to the forefront. Last semester, four people in Prof. Rebecca Hardin’s corporate ethnography seminar wrote research-intensive papers on environmental justice in Detroit. In the Global Change class, Prof. Tom Gladwin of the Business School wrapped up his final lecture with a discussion of global inequality and how it is reflected in Ann Arbor and Detroit. He called on us all to do something.

“Giving back” hasn’t been a priority for most students for various reasons. We’re all very busy. No doubt, students have more power after getting their degrees, but gaining community service experience while we are in school can actually help to shape our goals. It’s also a place where problems are abstract or analyzed statistically, or felt to be too complex to be able to change. It’s amazing to me to see people at the University recognize a responsibility, or at least an ability, to act.

Others see the quality of a University degree as the only reimbursement Michigan needs. Higher education creates human capital that has the potential to attract high-paying science-based technologies back to the state.

It would be nice to be able to say that we owe something to the state, because we go to such a phenomenal, tax-supported public University. But our tuition is rising, as is corporate research funding, and private donors are dealing out luxury facilities with their name attached. Public funding is in long-term decline.

Regardless of your reasons, try to find a way out of the Ann Arbor bubble — and especially into service work in Detroit. Professors aren’t the only people we should learn from in this time.

Meg Young can be reached at megyoung@umich.edu.

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