From The University Record: Program helps U-M students grow through community service

By Ann Zaniewski / The University Record

Two days into her freshman year at U-M, Oluwatosin “Tosin” Adeyemi was cutting away invasive plants in an Ann Arbor park.

Community service is a cornerstone of the Michigan Community Scholars Program learning community. As a member, Adeyemi spent close to 20 hours over that academic year helping others — while learning about social justice, closely interacting with people from different backgrounds and making lifelong friendships.

“My Michigan experience wouldn’t be nearly as rich without it,” said Adeyemi, now a senior studying biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience.

MCSP is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Founder and Director David Schoem, an adjunct associate professor of sociology, said the program emphasizes meaningful civic engagement and intercultural understanding and dialogue. It is under the umbrella of LSA but open to students of all schools and colleges.

About 120 freshmen enroll every year. About 50 of those students return in their sophomore year as peer advisers and peer mentors. Seven upperclassmen serve as resident advisers.

First-year students live and study together in West Quad. They must take at least three required classes, choosing from ones that focus on subjects such as civil rights and how humans impact the environment.

A lot of learning takes place outside the classroom, too. Students often meet up in their residence hall lounges for informal group dialogues. Topics have ranged from cultural appropriation and managing stress to major news events.

Schoem said about half the students in MCSP are people of color, setting it apart from many of U-M’s other learning communities.

“I think what’s unique is the level of engagement with students from different backgrounds, with different perspectives, with different viewpoints, and learning to build community and celebrate those differences,” Schoem said.

Emily Welch, who was in MCSP as a freshman and now works as a peer adviser, said Schoem, associate director Wendy Woods and the other faculty involved in the program strive to make meaningful connections with students. Each year, about 10 to 15 faculty members teach classes linked to MCSP.

“We have a wonderful faculty here. They genuinely care about every student,” Welch said. “Right from the beginning, our director and co-director, they encouraged you to stop by the office just to talk to them.”

Welch, who is from Livonia, credits the group with helping smooth her transition from high school to college. It made U-M “feel smaller,” she said.

Adeyemi, who is from Oak Park, Ill., said MCSP helped broaden her understanding of diversity to include not just race or background, but also other factors such as people’s interests, where they live and how they perceive their experiences.

“The faculty cultivated a supportive environment and challenged me to engage with people who are different, and expanded my definition of diversity,” she said.

Academic success is a core element of MCSP. Schoem said the retention rate among students in the program is high, with data from an eight-year period ending in 2018 showing that 98.4 percent of all MCSP students returned to U-M for a second year.

Both Welch and Adeyemi said MCSP’s commitment to service was a main factor in their decision to join.

“I did a lot of community service in high school, and I was really attracted by the idea of being alongside peers who also wanted to give back to their community,” Adeyemi said.

MCSP students have left their mark at U-M and beyond. They’ve played basketball with developmentally and intellectually disabled adults at the St. Louis Center in Chelsea, tended community gardens in Detroit and helped with the interior demolition of a house in Ypsilanti as part of a Habitat for Humanity project.

As usual, MCSP kicked off the school year with a day of service at Bluffs Nature Area in Ann Arbor. In October, past and present members gathered for a special celebratory dinner at Palmer Commons to mark MCSP’s 20th anniversary.

Schoem said in the context of today’s rancorous political climate, MCSP’s mission seems even more significant now than when he founded the group in 1999.

“Every year it feels even more important, because as society at large has become more polarized and there’s a lot of divisiveness, and you hear government leaders speaking in harsh tones to one another, our students are living a different reality,” he said.

“They’re really embracing a diverse democratic society. That it really can work, that they’re living it. It’s not just an ideal. They listen to one another. They learn from one another.

“When they go off after college, they’re staying close to this diverse community, and they really see a different opportunity and possibilities for what our country can be.”


MAIN PHOTO: U-M student Jack Light, foreground, spreads topsoil with fellow students, from left to right, Jordan Manley, Sarah Ong and Sarah Pisarczyk. The students are Michigan Community Scholars Program members and were working at Growing Hope Urban Farm in Ypsilanti. (Photo by Emily Welch)

From left, Sarah Ong, Jordan Manley, Vincent Sposato, Rahul Ribiero and Josh Salenbien pose with shovels at the Growing Hope Urban Farm in Ypsilanti. All five U-M students are members of the Michigan Community Scholars Program under the umbrella of LSA. (Photo by Emily Welch)