A Semester In The D

No matter what headlines, pundits or conventional wisdom might say about the divide between Ann Arbor and Detroit, a growing group of University of Michigan students and alumni have a lot more to say about what the cities have in common than about their differences.
"Detroit is really close to home," says Angie Karr, a U of M graduate and 2009 participant in the school's new "Semester in Detroit" program. "The connection between [Ann Arbor and Detroit is] real."
In fact, the negligible distance between Michigan's largest city and the rest of the state is something other Semester in Detroit participants are quick to mention. When asked how his experience living in Detroit during the program differed from his hometown of Hartland, 2010 U of M grad Patrick Morris says, "First off I would say that Detroit is not far away. From Hartland it's only an hour. From Ann Arbor it's only 45 minutes. So while there may be other barriers between the cities, the geographic barriers are pretty small."
Proximity, it turns out, is only the first thing Detroit and Ann Arbor have in common. And if anyone can speak with authority on the subject, it's alumni of U of M's new Semester in Detroit program, which takes a group of students into the center of Detroit for an intensive semester of living, working and learning all about the city.
If that sounds like studying abroad, that's because it's very close to exactly that. So why would U of M design a program to house and educate students in a city they could drive to on a Tuesday evening? According to the U of M Semester in Detroit Program Associate Director Craig Regester, it's because students typically don't. And considering Detroit's important role in both history and current urban issues, there are so many reasons for them to go there.
"Detroit was arguably the most important city in the United States in the 20th Century," says Regester. "It's an incredibly important place to understand. You can do that by listening to faculty lecture or reading books, but it's far more effective being there, meeting people, talking to people and seeing some of the living history."
The city's high profile history, says Regester, is only half the reason a group of senior U of M urban studies students pitched the idea for the program in 2006. But Detroit isn't just a history lesson.
"It's becoming a more popular idea in the current press," Regester says about the current challenges facing the city and the various emerging solutions. "The New York Times has written more about Detroit in the last two years than they probably have in the last 20, though the city has been in a transformative process for several decades. It has a lot of lessons for other cities."
The Semester in Detroit program kicked off in the winter of 2009, placing a group of about 25 students in Wayne State University housing and in internships with various non-profits around the city. In addition, the participants took Detroit-based core curriculum classes in U of M's Detroit Center, as well as elective courses, including some in partnership with Wayne State.
"You get a lot more comprehensive view of an idea - the idea being a city - when you're surrounded by it," says Morris, "rather than just reading a few books and taking a field trip."
Learning about Detroit's history while passing by the actual historic sites under discussion on a daily basis gave Morris an understanding of the city's sense of place. "It gave me an appreciation for the role Detroit played in the state of Michigan," he says. "I learned a lot about what the state has to offer by knowing more about Detroit. There are a lot of different opportunities here."
During her Semester in Detroit experience, Karr found learning about Detroit in Detroit allowed for ideas to become reality.
"All sorts of big ideas come up in academic discussions in Ann Arbor," she says, "like community organizing, education, empowerment and social justice. Those things took on real meaning and human faces in Detroit." 
For both Morris and Karr, that "real meaning" wasn't just a fleeting feeling. After graduation, both found jobs and are now official Detroit residents - along with 50 percent of all Semester in Detroit students who participated in the program during the last semester of their senior year.
Karr took on a full-time position with The Hub of Detroit, where she completed her internship and has been working ever since. The Hub's mission is to support the city's cycling community with education and service with a focus on youth development and sustainable practices.
"Real responsibility was put into my hands, and I rose to the challenges," says Karr. "Working with people and developing relationships with them gave me a sense of belonging to the community and I connected myself to its ups and downs. I began to see Detroit's problems as my problems, its future as important to my future.
What may be most surprising to non-Detroiters and other U of M students who stayed in what Karr affectionately refers to as the "bubble" of Ann Arbor, is that a sense of civic duty wasn't the driving force for their decision to put down roots in Detroit after graduation.
"There are so many things to be involved with here," says Morris, who now works for Racquet up Detroit, an after-school youth services program. "I don't think I would have considered Detroit as place for me to be living and working before the Semester in Detroit program. But after I got in touch with a lot of people in the writing community and arts community and saw different neighborhoods different places to live, it was top on my list."
"I am a year-round bike commuter," Karr says, "and the Motor City is great for exploring by bike. I feel like there are actually too many awesome things to be involved with. My active community lifestyle is fully supported by what the city has to offer." 
According to Regester, one of the primary goals of the Semester in Detroit program is to create a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship between the U of M students from Ann Arbor and the city of Detroit. While the students dedicate time and learning and a semester of labor to the city, it seems the many ways in which Detroit is benefiting them becomes clearer with every graduate who becomes a resident. 
Regester, who has lived in the city for 16 years himself, knows exactly why those students are drawn to stay. "Detroit illuminates and reflects some of the nation's biggest urban issues," he says. "Trying to understand the future of the American city is important for our students, and both Detroit's past and present provides that rich opportunity for students."
"Also," he continues, "I think people see that there is a heck of a lot more happening in Detroit than what makes it into the headlines. There's arts and events and nightlife, and all sorts of active community organizations - who wouldn't what to be in a place like that?"
The University of Michigan's Semester in the D program is beginning its third year. Students and participating organizations are recruited during the fall Semester and the Detroit adventures begin again in the winter 2012 Semester. To follow along with the next class' experience or read about past semesters, visit the "Semester D Blog."

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.


All photos by Doug Coombe

Angie Karr at The Hub of Detroit
Patrick Morris at Racquet up Detroit
Craig Regester at a recruitment fair at U of M Ann Arbor
Craig at an art exhibit at U of M's Detroit Center
Craig outside of U of M's Detroit Center on Woodward
Angie Karr outside of Avalon International Breads in Midtown
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