Growing up in Lapeer County, Ruthie Freeman says, many people in her hometown never had the opportunity to attend college.
For those who did make it, few headed to schools like the University of Michigan.
What made the difference for Freeman, a U-M alumna and current faculty assistant at the Law School, was her family. Freeman’s parents and older sister attended U-M, and she spent time in Ann Arbor during her high school years.
“So I had a sense of what it was to be able to come here, what you were signing up for,” she said. “I had a very real sense of what the expectations were.”
To help other students in the state see college and U-M as a possibility, Freeman and other faculty and staff recently visited Battle Creek Central High School on the Wolverine Express.
Organized by the Center for Educational Outreach, Wolverine Express trips take faculty, staff, students and alumni to under-resourced high schools across the state to promote higher education by sharing their academic and career journeys.
For Freeman, it was a chance to reach out to students similar to her childhood classmates. “I was really interested in just encouraging people to come to a school like this because they might not have heard that otherwise.”
Wolverine Express trips take place throughout the school year, with upcoming trips scheduled for schools in Dearborn, Detroit and Ypsilanti. Although visits are tailored around schools’ needs, each trip includes sessions where U-M community members give presentations and engage in discussions with students in classrooms.
The center encourages faculty and staff to share their personal stories and recount their educational journeys during these sessions. Presenters also discuss their chosen fields and career, share insights about higher education, and answer students’ questions about college.
CEO Director Kim Lijana said Wolverine Express trips have a threefold mission: to inform, engage and inspire high school students.
Lijana recalled a conversation at Battle Creek Central in which the principal said while students there are thinking about college, they don’t consider U-M an option. “So I really think that us showing up in a school — all from the university — helps with that.”
“The whole goal is to inspire,” Lijana said. “I think sometimes we underestimate the power of all of our stories and what got us to where we are today. To give that to a student is really a gift.”
During the trip last month, U-M faculty and staff sat down with staff members and administrators from Battle Creek Public Schools.
While U-M learned more about the demographics and priorities of the district, faculty and staff gave the K-12 district personnel insight into the skills students need to succeed in higher education.
They advised students should possess help-seeking behaviors and time-management skills, as well as know how to self-assess one’s progress and areas for improvement.
“The other thing I’ve been saying a lot to parents this year and to students is build your village,” LSA Academic Adviser Liese Hull said. “You want to make sure that you are not alone.”
In one interactive classroom breakout session, Outreach Coordinator Jenna Munson guided students in several science experiments about minerals. As students created carbon dioxide off mineral surfaces and tested elements’ hardness, Munson discussed larger environmental issues the experiments represented, such as ocean acidification.
Munson uses Wolverine Express in part to recruit students for LSA’s Earth Camp, a weeklong experience designed to excite and educate students about earth science by getting them outdoors.
On Wolverine Express visits, she educates students about majoring in earth sciences and the wealth of careers in that sector. During the Battle Creek trip, she told her class about her own path to becoming a geologist.
“Don’t think that you have to know what you’re going to do right now,” Munson advised the students. “I can only say if you’re driven and you do something that excites you, you will find a job in it that you’re passionate about.”
Keegan Beznoska, a Battle Creek Central senior, said Munson’s presentation inspired an interest in minerals.
He noted the importance of U-M visiting schools like his.
“I feel like trips like this will definitely help influence kids to work towards that job field or make them want to come to Michigan because they see opportunities,” he said.
Serving the community
U-M Business Systems Analyst Ryan Henyard went on the Battle Creek trip, adding one more school visit to his years of service to the program.
Henyard’s first Wolverine Express trip was to the former Highland Park High School, located a bus ride away from Henyard’s own childhood neighborhood.
Going back, he saw how few resources the school possessed, and students did not have access to a lot of information about college. At the time, Henyard said the city of Highland Park had even removed all the streetlights because of unresolved debt.
“I have a vivid memory of leaving the school, and the entire place being dark,” Henyard said.
His experiences on Wolverine Express eventually inspired him to pursue a master’s degree in higher education from the School of Education, with a focus on student access and success.
He said the trips give faculty and staff a chance to put a face and name to future students in Michigan.
“I think for faculty and staff, it really helps us get an idea about what the future of our campus is going to look like and the problems that they’re going to be trying to solve,” Henyard said.
For Jane Prophet, associate dean for research and professor of art and design at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, the Battle Creek trip served as her first time on the Wolverine Express. She said the trips give students an opportunity to meet and interact with real professors instead of relying on stereotypes about those working in academia.
The purpose of the trip especially resonated with Prophet, a first-generation college student.
“I’m really aware that if you’re first gen, you don’t necessarily have a model for what it means to go to a university,” Prophet said. “You don’t have all those conversations at home that make it real in some way.”
Like Prophet, the Battle Creek trip marked Freeman’s first Wolverine Express trip. She spent her class time discussing her experiences at the Law School and the kinds of activities students could do if they pursue that career pathway.
Along with presenting student opportunities they might not have heard about, Freeman said participating on the trip gave her the chance to meet fellow colleagues.
Freeman said she would recommend for other faculty and staff across the university to participate on Wolverine Express.
“Connecting with a prospective student who doesn’t realize it, and being able to say, ‘You know what, I could picture you on campus, you should absolutely apply,’ is really powerful,” Freeman said.