Some students from Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College go beyond campus borders and into the Kalamazoo community for work, service-learning projects and volunteering, but city leaders, business owners and university and college officials wish students would cross the campus borders even more often.
“Kalamazoo’s got a lot going for it,” says Mike Teel, owner of Teel Jewelers, located on the downtown Kalamazoo Mall. “Why would any kid go to college and spend their whole time on campus?”
To that end, both schools use a variety of ways to encourage students living on campus to get off campus and explore what the community has to offer.
WMU promotes students getting off campus by “making sure that we educate students on the availability of the transportation (and) also providing the information from Discover Kalamazoo on events that are going on around town,” says Kara Wood,
WMU associate vice president for community partnerships. Partnerships with local businesses to provide students with discounts can also help draw students into the community, she says.
WMU has about 22,000 students, and riding on Metro buses is free for them with their Bronco ID. Grocery stores often offer student discounts, including 10 percent off purchases at Sawall’s Health Foods and 5 percent off food purchases at Harding’s Friendly Markets every Thursday. Sawall’s management says the store has seen an increase in student traffic as a result of the discount, but it doesn’t keep track of the total number of students using it.
Another big way that WMU incorporates students into the community is through community service, which can also benefit students in the long run.
“We’ve got a lot of service-learning opportunities that students tend to get involved in through classwork, and that then gets them into the community with nonprofit organizations or businesses. And I would say that leads to more engagement with the community because they become familiar with the community,” Wood says.
WMU wins recognition
In response to its community engagement efforts, WMU received the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification. To win this designation, the university tracked student, staff and faculty involvement in the community. “That could be through experiential learning,” Wood says. “It can be projects that have been done in the community. It could also be any array of programming that is offered to the community.”
Community service sites for WMU students, staff and faculty include the YWCA, the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Erica Goble, who attended Western from 2012 to 2016 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work, participated as a sophomore in a service-learning project that was required for a gerontology class.
As part of the class, Goble had to pick a local aging agency to work with and chose the Ecumenical Senior Center on North Burdick Street. The purpose of her project was to raise money for a blood pressure monitor.
“It was also a congregant meal site, so, like Meals on Wheels, they serve all the meals to the people that come to the center during the day, and they were really trying to make it into a one-stop shop where older adults would come in to be a part of the senior center’s activities and do some health monitoring,” Goble says.
Goble did a second service-learning project in which she participated in planning the Rainbow Run 5K, a benefit run that raised money for a local LGBT organization.
Goble says she believes that service learning helped her connect with people. “In social work, so much of it is interfacing with people and making relationships and actually being in the community to understand how the work that you’re doing actually impacts the community you’re trying to serve,” Goble says. “You don’t get it until you can actually go out and do it. There’s nothing as beneficial as making the partnerships and trying to work with the community.”
K College’s commitment
Kalamazoo College also encourages service-learning opportunities. Its Mary Jane Underwood Center for Civic Engagement, which was created 20 years ago, uses service learning to give students a better understanding of the community. About half of the approximately 1,450-member student body gets involved in service-learning opportunities, says Director of Civic Engagement Alison Geist.
“We are less focused on encouraging students to take advantage of retail, arts, culture,” Geist says, “although we hope that having students more involved in the city, they will in turn want to be involved in those ways as well.”
The Underwood Center has 30 community partners, including the YWCA and Kalamazoo Public Schools. Students and organizations work on issues aimed at building a world sustainable for everyone.
“With Kalamazoo Public Schools, we have students working in about five different schools providing academic enrichment as well as just fun and other kinds of great stuff to promote the possibility for all students to take advantage of the Kalamazoo
Promise (scholarship program),” Geist says.
Geist says more than 150 students work at the schools every week, including at Woodward and El Sol elementaries. This opportunity allows them to learn about the barriers elementary students may face in living successful lives.
Service learning is also done through various classes at the college. For example, sophomore psychology major Lena Gerstle helped provide childcare for some of the children at the YWCA as part of a health psychology class.
“I was working with 4- and 5-year-olds and it was just really fun, because at college it’s easy to hang out with people your own age,” Gerstle says. “We would develop relationships with (the kids) and it was really nice.”
As a result of this experience, Gerstle says, she learned how the YWCA works to empower women, by improving maternal and child health, caring for victims of abuse and advocating for systemic change.
More service opportunities
In addition to becoming involved in service learning opportunities, local college students also do other types of community service.
WMU’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota, a music fraternity for women, presents an annual Valentine’s Day concert at the Friendship Village retirement community. The group also helped members of a local Girl Scout troop earn their music badges.
“Often what service does in general is just put you in contact with populations that you don’t generally interact with,” says Raine Kuch, who majored in journalism at WMU. “When I went to Friendship Village, I’m a young person that usually interacts with college students, so being in a setting where I’m interacting with older individuals, that’s also outside of the norm.”
Night life and dog walks
A chance to have some fun also brings local college students into the community, especially into downtown Kalamazoo.
Veronica Aguirre, a WMU student from Grand Rapids, worked as a youth development coach at Linden Grove Middle School. At first, her job was the only way she connected with the city but having a new dog and encouraging friends eventually led her to explore downtown and local dog parks.
“My friends and I like to catch movies so we would go to the downtown movie theater,” says Aguirre. “We like to walk our dogs downtown or go to any dog park around the city. I think having a dog gives you more motivation to go outside.”
Students want to know more
Community partnerships help get the word out to students about the community, but not everyone is aware of everything going on in the community. WMU sophomore Ethan Silverman says he has heard of the shows that come to WMU’s Miller
Auditorium as well as some events in the community, but he has not been to downtown.
“I know about all the plays and the shows at Miller and that’s cool, but I don’t know of any community events other than the (Kalamazoo) Farmer’s Market,” Silverman says.
He says one way to better promote community events to students would be to use the billboards around campus to post flyers about them alongside WMU events.
Some international students also say they feel disconnected from the downtown area.
“Usually what I know mostly about Kalamazoo is from other students that I’ve met here and also from international student organizations when they organize events,” says Ivylove Cudjoe, who came to WMU from Ghana last fall.
Cudjoe says WMU could personalize its community outreach efforts more and spread the word by emailing students directly.
Downtown reaches out
The Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership (KDP), formerly known as Downtown Kalamazoo Inc., looks for ways to incorporate students into the community, so when the organization created four citizen coalitions to impact downtown, it did not leave college students out.
“We actually wanted to get students involved in our leadership decisions. We think it’s a good opportunity for us to learn from them,” says Jennifer Kitson Jelenek, KDP’s chief operating officer. “It’s also a good opportunity for students to get involved and be civically engaged in what’s going on in their community directly.”
Service on the coalitions is done on a yearly basis, and Jelenek says she would like to see more students applying to be on them.
She also believes in taking other steps to reach out to students. “In every kind of event and marketing promotion initiative that we take on,” she says, “one of our questions is: How do we get students downtown and how are we creating programming that’s accessible to students?”
Jelenek says the organization plans downtown events that it hopes will attract college students. Last fall’s SkeleTour, for example, which involved decorated skeletons at businesses throughout the downtown area, had the WMU Alumni Association as one of its sponsors.
“Our hope was that we are representing these campuses downtown so we hope that students come and engage more with these activities,” Jelenek says.
While KDP puts on this and other activities to try to get students downtown, she believes there is room for improvement.
“We still don’t see the numbers that we would like to see downtown,” Jelenek says. “We have students that come and volunteer with us during the holiday season and we appreciate that, but we really want that number to grow.”