I can’t count how many times I’ve heard it: “When I graduate, I’m getting out of Michigan.” As the first half of summer draws to a close, many students have fled Ann Arbor — and the state of Michigan altogether — to other economic and cultural epicenters, and not just the class of 2012. The ever-more important internship, by many considered vital to the undergrad experience, has drawn many students to greener pastures. The allure is understandable. Exodus is all too easy — especially when your state has been one of those hit hardest since the recession.
Despite Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s opponents predicting a continued spiral downward, however, things have begun looking up. The film industry is set to thrive in 2012, and Michigan recently grabbed the 25th rank in economic outlook on the State Economic Competitiveness Index put out by the American Legislative Exchange Council. Detroit’s increased hiring market also was the topic of a June 12 Forbes article. Despite these encouraging signs, however, May’s unemployment tally is a depressing 8.5 percent and sits at the unlucky spot of 13th-worst in the nation. Luckily, many talented students have found options outside the mitten. Cities such as New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco have all beckoned with the promise of a better work experience — one you can’t get anywhere else.
They’re not the only lucky ones, though, and there are some experiences here that you definitely can’t get anywhere else.
I attended the Semester in Detroit student showcase during the second-to-last week of June to speak with students who had volunteered to learn and work in Michigan’s once-glorious metropolis. The University’s Detroit Center is located in Midtown, housed blocks from historical buildings such as the Fox Theatre, the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum and the Detroit Opera House. I was both surprised and impressed by the students who participated in this year’s program in an array of organizations running the gamut from theater and community outreach to city and state government to law and social justice.
For LSA junior Erin Kirkland, an aspiring journalist and managing photo editor at The Michigan Daily, it all started with “the same stories that you hear at every family party.” These were all connected in some way to Detroit, the place where her parents were born and raised before settling in Farmington. After hearing so much about the “good old days,” she wondered how to connect to the history of the city — without any undue dewy-eyed nostalgia — and of her family before moving forward. Though she doesn’t feel entitled to the designation of “Detroiter” after one semester, she told me she plans to apply to the Detroit Free Press and other non-profit organizations after graduating. “I still do dream of working for the New York Times,” she admitted, “but I’ve re-evaluated, and I think there’s a lot going on here.”
Originally from Washington D.C., LSA junior Claire Jaffe interned for The Hub of Detroit, a program in which participants learn to assemble a bike they may keep upon completion. Part of her internship included making and traveling her own bike routes throughout the city. One of her favorite neighborhoods is Brush Park. “There are these amazing mansions, and then you turn your back and it’s a completely vacant lot with grass up to your waist and the skyline behind it – incredible,” she said. An Urban Planning minor, Claire believes it’s important to study urban sprawl and re-inhabitation and approach the puzzling problem of urban revitalization. Claire noted that working in Detroit is a definite future prospect. “Just being here is so inspiring,” she said. “When I look at Brush Park … there’s so much possibility in those vacant lots and that’s just beautiful.”
Alana Hoey is a senior in the School of Art & Design with a second independent study major in Urban Planning. Alana felt that her internship at Pewabic Pottery was a unique opportunity. Pewabic is known locally for the community outreach. When asked if she would consider returning to the city to work, Alana’s response was simple: “I’m me here.” Alana is one of two in this year’s program who’s native to the city and has many ties to the community. Her grandfather came to Detroit during the automotive boom at the turn of the century, when Henry Ford was offering $5 a day to new workers. Her mother also helped found an inner-city school in 2001. Though often protective of Detroit, Alana expressed the wish that friends would see for themselves as some of her fellow students had done.
Certainly it would be interesting to observe if the number of students investing in Detroit was closer to 200 rather than 20. But it’s still invaluable that these 20-odd students have seen some of the spirit of Detroit — be it in a bike shop or a health center or girl’s shelter, in a councilwoman’s office or on a wall mural. That spirit is indicative of a special culture flavored with innovation and tenacity that you just can’t find anywhere else.
Vanessa Rychlinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.