EMU improves student opportunities through community and industry partnerships

EMU's recent collaborations include efforts to help frontline workers earn degrees, get seniors connected to technology, and provide more opportunities for aviation students.
Eastern Michigan University (EMU) already has many established collaborations with nonprofits, businesses, and other educational institutions, and the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't slowed down the process of adding new partnerships.

"The Carnegie Foundation classifies us as an 'engaged university.' That means we live and breathe outreach to our community," says EMU President James Smith. "I think we really showed that this kind of collaborative work can happen even in the toughest of times."

EMU's collaborations in the last two years include efforts to help frontline workers earn degrees, get seniors connected to technology, provide more opportunities for aviation students, and more. 

Futures for Frontliners program picks up momentum

In late 2020, EMU announced a partnership with Henry Ford College (HFC) that builds on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's "Futures for Frontliners" scholarship program. The governor's program provided a pathway for frontline workers like medical staff, grocery store employees, and child care providers to get a two-year associate's degree or a technical certificate at no cost.

An agreement between EMU and HFC offers EMU scholarships to those frontline workers who complete an associate's degree at HFC so they can extend that to a four-year degree.
President Smith and Dean Qatu tour the newly rennovated Sill Hall.
"The great thing about that partnership is that [HFC] President [Russell] Kavalhuna came to us. We didn't go to them," Smith says. "We jumped on it immediately."

EMU Vice President and Chief Enrollment Officer Kevin Kucera says EMU already had a "really strong history of working with Henry Ford," with about 40 agreements in place regarding credit transfers. That meant cooperating on the Frontliners project was "a natural."

While HFC will provide a tuition-free associate's degree to frontliners, EMU will provide scholarship opportunities for those who transfer from HFC. Those eligible for Pell grants will receive an EMU Frontliner Scholarship to cover the remaining tuition balance up to 12 credit hours per semester for up to five semesters. Anyone not eligible for a Pell grant can receive a different scholarship that would cover $1,250 of the students' expenses for each of four consecutive semesters.

If an HFC student was already most of the way through their associate's degree when the program was launched, they could arrive at EMU for their first semester as early as this autumn. Kucera says EMU expects at least 25 transfers from HFC in the fall semester.

Perhaps the most exciting news is that, after the agreement was put in place with HFC, six more community colleges have signed similar agreements with EMU.

GameAbove, Mr. October expand STEM opportunities

EMU renamed its engineering and technology college the GameAbove College of Engineering and Technology in March, after receiving $15 million over a year and a half and then a $5 million donation in February from the GameAbove alumni group.

GameAbove's mission is "to give back to EMU and further its success story by promoting a clear focus on research, entrepreneurship, and innovation" and investing in faculty and students.

Mohamad Qatu, dean of the GameAbove College, says staff felt "very lucky and proud" to be named after the alumni group that he says has "a great passion to give back to the university."
EMU GameAbove College dean Mohamad Qatu.
The latest $5 million gift funded upgraded supplies and equipment for the newly renovated building that houses the program, along with support for student recruitment. Previous gifts helped establish a Students Matter Most initiative, which provides financial resources for students, and an Alumni Pay-It-Forward program, which awards $600 to graduating seniors and $400 to incoming freshmen with no strings attached. The hope is that the cash will make the transition into college easier for freshmen and the transition to the workforce easier for seniors.

In May, the alumni group partnered with former baseball player Reggie Jackson's Mr. October Foundation to bring hands-on STEM programming to students in underserved communities around southeast Michigan and encourage those students to pursue STEM careers. GameAbove will contribute $250,000 to the Mr. October Foundation for the 2021-2022 school year to bring STEM education to students around the region.

Qatu says these partnerships build on EMU's existing commitments to K-12 STEM education through its Digital Divas program and a partnership with the Engineering Society of Detroit to bring young women and minorities into STEM fields.

"We found a lot of synergy with Mr. October and GameAbove," Qatu says. 

In June, EMU also received a $1 million gift from alum Jack Roush, chairman of the board of Roush Enterprises and founder, CEO, and co-owner of a NASCAR racing team. The gift will support mathematics and automotive programs in the GameAbove College.

"Roush came back and visited our labs, and was really pleased with what he saw," Qatu says. "He wanted to expose students more and more to apparatus and tools to make them successful at the university and when they graduate."

The gift will allow the college to add and maintain equipment, including industry-standard automotive lab equipment. Qatu says the partnership with Roush and others like it are "really about bringing opportunities to students."

"Engineers in these companies can provide feedback to enhance our curriculum," he says. "I'm really proud of that engagement with the community that helps provide opportunities to students through improved curriculum, internships, and employment opportunities."

Beibu Gulf University: Bolstering EMU's reputation as an international partner

An international collaboration with Beibu Gulf University (BGU) in southern China started with Kucera visiting the BGU campus about two and a half years ago.

Kucera says BGU is "very big but relatively young." Administrators were looking to partner with an American university to form a joint college to train engineering students.
EMU Vice President and Chief Enrollment Officer Kevin Kucera.
The agreement calls for a 15-year cooperative partnership that will begin with up to 300
students enrolled in the new program annually for the first four years. Over four years, the program could take up to 1,200 students in five different programs. Upon completion, students receive degrees from both BGU and EMU.

EMU professors aren't required to travel to China but will have the opportunity to do so if they wish. On the flip side, Chinese students have the option to complete their final year on EMU's campus before earning their dual degree. 

The partnership will bring needed funding to the university while providing EMU students in both China and Ypsilanti an opportunity to learn about other cultures.

"We like our students to be more and more exposed to people of different backgrounds," Qatu says, noting that engineers often have to travel to international locations on the job.

"This partnership is also important for our reputation and ranking," he says. "An international collaboration is generally viewed positively by most ranking bodies. This enhances our status as an internationally-recognized university."

For example, Qatu says the growing reputation of EMU's engineering program has contributed to a 50% increase in the number of students signing up for the university's cybersecurity program over the last four years. It's one of only a handful of such programs in the U.S., and Qatu says government agencies have been scouting graduates of the cybersecurity program for state and federal jobs.

"It's a win-win because students are getting an excellent education and even a job upon graduation, and we supply talent companies are looking for," Qatu says.

Crosswinds agreement adds options for aviation students

Enrollment in EMU's aviation program was at its highest peak just before the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, EMU was partnering with Eagle Flight Center at Willow Run Airport. But EMU ended its partnership with Eagle Flight Center in August, with the flight center itself closing shortly after on Aug. 10. An EMU statement on the matter said it was "necessary to move forward" after a "great relationship" with the flight center, while a letter to students from Eagle Flight Center President Thomas Trumbull attributed EMU's decision to "changing economic and business conditions."

To continue its aviation program, EMU signed a five-year partnership agreement with Crosswinds Aviation, a Howell-based flight training program. Crosswinds hasn't just replaced Eagle Flight Center, though. It has radically expanded options for aviation students. 

Crosswinds was already operating out of Livingston County Spencer J. Hardy Airport, Flint Bishop Airport, and Oakland County International Airport. It added a footprint at Willow Run in November 2020.
EMU aviation program coordinator Jerard Delaney with a new flight simulator.
"During the pandemic, almost nobody was living on campus. Students were living at home and making much more use of our satellites in Howell, Pontiac, and Flint," says Jerard Delaney, aviation program coordinator for EMU. 

He says EMU is known for being a commuter college, and having four different locations for students to fly from is a "real positive" in that regard.

Additionally, students will be exposed to a wider variety of aircraft. The program will continue to use a few of the Cessna aircraft in its fleet but has added two-seater and four-seater planes made by Diamond Aircraft. It's less expensive to fly the two-seat Diamond plane, and EMU can pass those savings on to students, Delaney says. 

Another advantage of the agreement with Crosswinds is that the company is connected to high schools in both Howell and Flint. Juniors and seniors can begin their flight training at the high school's expense and then have a headstart on credits toward their aviation degree at EMU.

A couple other partnerships are "on the horizon" as well, Delaney says. One is with Ann Arbor aviation services business AVFlight and its affiliate AVFuel, who are looking to hire aviation students for internships and practicums. They're looking for students majoring in either aviation flight technology or aviation management technology.

Delaney says he's also had several conversations with Kalitta Air, a large cargo airline based at Willow Run that is seeking a pipeline for pilots and more.

"They're looking for people on the management side and also people to be dispatchers," Delaney says. "They want people they can nurture and make their next managers."

Additional collaborations for seniors and gamers

These aren't EMU's only recent collaborations. You can also read our coverage of the Digital Connecting Corps, a collaboration between Engage @ EMU and the University of Michigan (U-M) Ginsberg Center to improve digital access and education for older adults; and a partnership with international e-sports organization Gen.G to bring more e-sports to EMU's campus.

Smith says he takes great pride in EMU's focus on participatory learning.

"Students learn best by having the practical conjoined with the academic," Smith says. "That's why our students are often desired in those first jobs, because they've actually been out into the world of work."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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