I am one of the 14 members of Semester in Detroit (SID), a new University program funded by the Office of the Provost, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, the Residential College and the Ginsberg Center. This program grants undergraduate students at the University the opportunity to spend a semester living in Detroit, taking classes and interning with a community-based organization. The program’s goal is to strengthen the relationship between the University and the city of Detroit, and to engage students with a city that needs the creative energies of young people.

I’m sure that all 14 of us have different motives for being part of SID. For me, it was an opportunity to live in a new city and to intern with the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, an organization whose mission and goals I truly respect. And I haven’t been disappointed: Detroit is like no place else. The first thing I noticed is that Detroiters, even strangers on the streets, are some of the nicest people you can interact with. There’s a negative perception of Detroit that would suggest otherwise, but if you stick around for a while, you will see that Detroit is really just a big town.

People in coffee shops and restaurants will treat you like royalty — they will start to remember your name and your favorite items as you become a regular, as I have at Avalon International Breads. I’m Carolina, sweet cream butter scone and large “meaning of life” coffee blend. Strangers on the streets will say good morning, hello or start a conversation with you, and they will open the doors for you as you pass. In the eight years that I’ve been in the United States, I’ve never encountered people friendlier than those in Detroit.

I’ve had some very interesting conversations with strangers in this city — people sitting next to me at Avalon while I devour my sweet cream butter scone or people sitting at the bar at Cass Cafe ordering the same local beer I’ve grown to love (Ghettoblaster, on draft). And it doesn’t take long to learn that Detroit is a city of communities. As the city tries to recover, communities and personal relationships thrive.

Population loss to the suburbs and to other states is no secret here, and as a result, there are too many empty lots and less than a million people living in a city designed for two times that many. But on the bright side, those who live here know and help each other, because most of them cannot rely on anyone but themselves and the people around them.

Detroit is just that kind of scene, and SID is doing something even greater than any one of us could have anticipated. It’s not only providing the opportunity for University students to learn in a new city or to put an internship experience in their résumés — we could do that anywhere. This program is strengthening the bond between Detroit, and the University and the links between community organizations rooted in the city. By providing community organizations with a forum to talk to one another, SID is increasing its social capital and resources. SID is helping Detroit lift itself up. And in the process, this program is teaching us that the best way to help communities is by assessing what they have and building from there instead of just focusing on what they lack.

We get to make history, too. Some of us do research in a class for a play that will be performed by the Mosaic Youth Theatre so that people won’t forget about the 1966 Northern Walkout. Some of us have been reading about this city from the perspective of local writers, and it’s inspired us to create our own literature. Others are learning about sustainable foods in a city that has too much room and not enough people. And all of us have taken a ride through the years of Detroit’s urban planning history.

Three months have passed since the moment we signed our housing contracts at Wayne State and we only have a month left in Detroit, which means it’s time to think about what we’ve gotten out of this experience. For me, the greatest thing is amazement about what can be created out of thin air, like magic — it’s what happens when people truly rely on each other.

Thanks, Detroit.

SID is now accepting applications for the Winter 2010 semester. Get the application online at www.semesterindetroit.com.

Carolina Rizzo is an LSA senior.

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