MSU program makes Detroit new kind of classroom

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit – On the first day of her internship this summer, Michigan State student Jocelyn Sample knocked on doors in Detroit, helping residents at risk of foreclosure learn how to stay in their homes.

Workers, from left, Jocelyn Sample, Summer Tolbert and Christen Marbury joke around in Cadillac Square after a lunch break from their jobs at the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office. Sample is taking part in a program called MSUxDET that embeds students in Detroit.

Then her memories came flooding back.

Sample remembered her grandmother’s house, where she spent part of her childhood, going into foreclosure years earlier. At the time, she was about 12 and her maternal uncle was living in the home on the northwest side of Detroit when everything was removed.

“We were devastated,” Sample said. “If I could help people not go through what my family went through, that would be awesome.”

Sample is among 60 Michigan State University students enrolled in a new program, DETxMSU, that encourages them to live, learn, work and play in Detroit — hailed as the hot new place to study and maybe make a difference, especially as the city’s renaissance continues.

In its first year, the pilot program embeds MSU students in the city for three months. There, they take a class, earn three credits and get paired with Detroit and Wayne County officials to work on some of the city’s biggest challenges. Among them: reducing foreclosures, boosting income tax compliance, promoting the arts, improving wellness and mapping all available retail spaces in the city.

Because the program houses students on Wayne State University’s campus, participants also get an intimate, often life-changing experience in a city where many long to play a part.

“Detroit is so alive right now,” said Domenika Tarazhi, an MSU senior who is working in the city’s historic preservation department. “So many people are moving into Detroit. The whole spirit of revival is in the air and I really wanted to be a part of that. People really want Detroit to grow and be the great city it once was.”

The $500,000 program is co-funded by MSU and Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans family of companies. While other universities offer shorter experiences in Detroit, MSU officials say their program immerses students in the realities of Detroit, offering different outcomes than other programs. Eventually, they hope to open up the program to students from other schools.

“A lot of universities across the country have Detroit programs,” said Joshua Sapotichne, MSU assistant professor in political science and head of one of seven programs that make up DETxMSU. “One of the issues with those programs is paratrooping the students in for three weeks. They drop them in and announce to the city that they’re here to help and what happens is the students have these sterile and safe experiences And then they go back to (their universities) and write papers, never to be head from again.

“Our goal here was to build early partnerships,” Sapotichne continued, “As opposed to saying, ‘We’re from MSU and here to help,’ we asked, ‘What do you need? How we can help?’ These are the kind of conversations we had for months prior to when we started ... so the work the students are doing has a lasting impact.”

The University of Michigan has numerous Detroit programs for students, including a semester in Detroit and a paid fellowship for three graduate students to work on policy priorities in the Detroit mayor’s office. Wayne State University also has a program for mid-career professionals in Detroit and an alternate spring break that keeps students in Detroit for a week to work for a nonprofit.

But Michigan State’s DETxMSU program is different because of its mix of students from six different disciplines, said coordinator Pat Crawford, an MSU associate professor in landscape architecture.

“They are living together and they are able to think about Detroit from a multidisciplinary perspective,” Crawford said. “The problems we are facing today cannot be solved by one discipline or one way of thinking. It takes bringing together many different people together to create solutions together.”

Detroit Deputy Mayor Carol O’Cleireacain said she is grateful for the program because MSU designed it to help students enjoy an unprecedented learning experience while giving officials much-needed support in a resource-strapped era.

“One of the big accomplishments of the program is that we are getting a bunch of kids who didn’t know Detroit and frankly from their backgrounds were in some ways scared of the city of Detroit,” O’Cleireacain said.

“They came in and they saw what it was and ... actually became enthusiastic about what it was like to be here. That was really good for them,” she said. “But it was terrific for the city, too. Detroit really gets a really bad rap. This is not a scary place to be.”

Added Debra Pospiech, Detroit deputy treasurer for taxes: “They become little ambassadors for the city.”

The seeds of DETxMSU were planted last summer when a dozen students commuted from East Lansing to work in Detroit’s income tax department.

This year, the initiative has grown to include seven programs spanning city and county departments that include business and the arts. The students live on Wayne State University’s campus in Atchinson Hall so they can work during the day and enjoy the city at night and on the weekends.

“When I was in high school, my parents wouldn’t let me come to Detroit because they were scared – we heard about how dangerous it was,” said Tarazhi, who’s from Sterling Heights. “But I’ve told them it’s not that bad and now my parents come and visit me, and they are starting to see the beauty of Detroit.”

Jocelyn Sample, right, works at the treasurer’s office, takes classes and is engaged in city projects with people like Summer Tolbert.

The Quicken Loans family of companies has supported the program because it wanted to help MSU introduce students to Detroit, in hopes they may consider working there one day, said Lisa Dancsok, vice president of Rock Ventures/Opportunity Detroit, the umbrella organization for Gilbert’s companies.

“It gets their students exposed to the city and also make them realize it’s a great place to work,” Dancsok said.

MSU plans to expand the program by inviting students from across the nation to join. Already, students from outside Michigan participate in the university’s study abroad programs, along with its programs based in Washington, D.C., President Lou Anna Simon said.

Extending the Detroit program beyond MSU would be an extension of that, with benefits for all, she said.

“The more people understand, live and work in Detroit,” Simon said, “the more excitement there will be about the future of Detroit.”