Colleges building community: How EMU and WCC give back to Ypsi

As the two higher learning institutions closest to the center of Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University (EMU) and Washtenaw Community College (WCC) are continually seeking opportunities to get more involved in their community.


In many ways, the schools are intricately linked in their missions to serve the community. They often partner as they strive to provide educational and collaborative opportunities to area residents. The schools will pool their resources, whether it's funding, staff, students, or space. They've even enrolled the same students, since some residents who initially receive their associate's degree at WCC then move onto EMU to pursue a bachelor's degree. We took a look at a few of the ways the two schools engage with the Ypsi community, both separately and collaboratively.


Eastern Michigan University


Engage @ EMU is the office tasked with enhancing, navigating, and cultivating relationships between the university, businesses, and the community. The office was created to ensure the university honors its Carnegie Classification in Community Engagement and affirms its intention to be an engaged university. Jessica "Decky" Alexander, EMU professor and director of academic engagement programs, believes many of the office's services benefit both the community and the university.


"I like to say that we are of Ypsilanti, so often our involvement is a response to a community ask or a community want, or a result of years of cultivation of relationships large and small, and a desire to really understand and work with the community in which we live," Alexander says.


EMU's Family Empowerment Program initially launched at Hamilton Crossing, 596 S. Hamilton St., in an effort to provide supportive services to the housing complex's low-income residents, and has since expanded to other Ypsilanti Housing Commission (YHC) developments. The program aims to help families become self-sufficient in employment, education, health, and wellness. Social workers meet one-on-one with residents who opt to participate in the program to address their personal goals. The social workers are located at Hamilton Crossing, Sauk Trail Pointe, and New Parkridge, but residents living in any YHC development can utilize the program.


Bright Futures is an after-school program serving 15 sites within Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) and Wayne-Westland Community Schools. It's one of the largest after-school programs in Ypsi, with a presence in eight of YCS' elementary, middle, and high school buildings. Bright Futures focuses on improving academic achievement, fostering self-efficacy, and preparing students for the transition to their next level of schooling. Participating students receive homework help, academic assistance, mentorship, service-learning experience, and participation in clubs and activities.


For its Community Work-Study Program, the Office of Academic Service-Learning places eligible work-study students into community service jobs at local nonprofits and municipalities. The program receives federal financial aid money to pay participating students, so the organizations can essentially receive free labor in exchange for providing work experience to the students. The program partners with institutions that have specific needs, such as Ozone House, Corner Health Center, Riverside Arts Center, and the Ypsilanti District Library. The program currently involves 33 EMU students serving 25 organizations.


"These programs are mutually beneficial collaborations," Alexander says. "They benefit the community … whether it’s schools or housing community and residents, or local organizations … as much as they benefit our students, our staff, and our institution."


Washtenaw Community College


Even though WCC is located in Ann Arbor Township, many of its students and community partners are based in Ypsi or Ypsi Township. Almost a quarter of WCC's students live in either the 48197 or 48198 ZIP code, according to data from the 2016-2017 academic year.


Niko Dawson, WCC's dean of economic and community development, says the college is working to expand upon existing services as well as introduce new services. He thinks that spirit of continual improvement starts at the top with leadership, trickles down, and "permeates out into the greater community."


"Our goal is to ensure that we continue to do those things that have a community need and a student interest," Dawson says. "And if we can do those things successfully, I think WCC has certainly had a winning existence."


WCC's Department of Economic and Community Development manages programming at two community resource buildings in Ypsi. Harriet Street Center, 322 Harriet St., focuses on workforce development and Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr., focuses on community enrichment.


Harriet Street offers employment services, like job coaching and resume writing and interviewing instruction, in an effort to help residents with job readiness. Those services are bolstered by WCC's partnership with Michigan Works! Southeast, 304 Harriet St., which shares the building. The center also supports residents who are trying to get GEDs through WCC's Adult Transitions Pathways program in order to pursue academic or employment opportunities. They're able to take GED classes and meet with staff who help them figure out what they want to achieve and then develop and execute a plan.


WCC partners with the Washtenaw Intermediate School District to offer free GED and ESL classes at Ypsilanti Township Community Center, 2025 E. Clark Road, through the Adult Transitions Pathways program as well. Those who participate in the program are treated as WCC students. The college distributes bus tokens to students in need since many of the people who take the GED and ESL classes are low-income and experience transportation barriers.


Social worker Anthony Williamson, WCC's community development manager at Parkridge, started working part-time at WCC in 1998 and got a full-time job as coordinator at Harriet Street in 2001. He started trying to figure out how he could get involved at Parkridge through his work at WCC in 2003, when he was dismayed by the closing of Ypsi's parks and recreation department.


WCC started offering programming at Parkridge in 2006 and unofficially started managing its programming in 2010. Williamson started working full-time at Parkridge in 2012 after WCC signed an official agreement with the city of Ypsilanti to manage the center's programming. WCC then moved some of its programming from Harriet Street to Parkridge because it offered a bigger space for community involvement.


Williamson believes WCC's mission at Parkridge is to develop academic and enrichment opportunities for community residents of all ages. WCC offers after-school programming for kids ages 5 to 18 in the late afternoon and evening, as well as adult and senior classes, like sewing and line dancing, during the daytime. Parkridge opens its doors to organizations and individuals who want to use the space for their own purposes. Every Monday morning, the center hosts a meeting where people are invited to exchange information and discuss what's going on in the community.


Williamson thinks WCC can serve as the first step for local kids who are interested in pursuing higher education since their involvement at Parkridge can offer a direct pathway to opportunities with the college. He believes the kids who are exposed to WCC and its staff and students at Parkridge can learn firsthand that college is accessible to them and can be a means of personal success.


"I believe it’s important that this community sees things that can affect their lives in a positive way, currently and in the future," Williamson says. "I believe that through Washtenaw Community College, we’ve developed a very strong program that allows residents to feel open to coming here to find a variety of resources."


Student perspectives


WCC pharmacy technology student Amelia Reese has been a resident of the neighborhood surrounding Parkridge Community Center for about six years. She lived in Parkridge Homes for several years until the complex was torn down to make way for a new affordable housing development, and then moved into New Parkridge in July. She has spoken with a Family Empowerment Program social worker about the resources that are available to her as a resident of New Parkridge, but she hasn't had the chance to utilize them yet. She plans to eventually take advantage of a program that can help her save money for a down payment on a home.


Reese was already familiar with Parkridge Community Center when Williamson informed her that as a WCC student she can take advantage of the Federal Work Study program and work at the center. It's a great opportunity for Reese because it allows her to gain job experience and receive financial aid to offset the cost of schooling without her rent being raised at New Parkridge, since her rent is based on her income. She's also able to advocate for others and be more involved in the community, both as a work-study student at Parkridge Community Center and as a resident of New Parkridge.


"It’s nice to see kids grow and I’ve been here for a long time, so I’m able to be a part of their lives," Reese says. "If I have food or resources, I can go and personally deliver them, or personally relay messages. I try to heighten the parent involvement in any way that I can by bringing them over here and letting parents know that Parkridge exists and it’s a free program for the kids and gives them something to do."


Rasheed Atwater is a graduate student at EMU studying social foundations of community and education and African-American studies. He works at Parkridge Community Center as a recreational aide employed by the city of Ypsilanti. His main responsibilities are creating programming and engaging the community. He initially started volunteering at Parkridge around 2013 through his involvement in an EMU student organization called the Society of Africology. He plans to bring back some of the programming he offered as a volunteer, like a chess club, a manhood group, and a series of Africology classes, in his new role at Parkridge.


Atwater participates in the EMU Office of Academic Service-Learning's College Coaching Corps, whose goal is to help more middle and high school students pursue postsecondary educational opportunities. He's the EMU graduate assistant who serves as a college and career advisor at Ypsilanti Middle School. He believes his work at Parkridge helped him get the college and career advisor position because he was already familiar with many of the kids and the programming they wanted and needed.


"I’m able to listen and to really be involved and see how different communities react to different programming, as well as opportunities," Atwater says. "You can read all the books about how communities should change all you want, but (it's not) until you get to meet the people and see what type of vision they have for their community that you’re able to be effective."


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

All photos by Doug Coombe.