A few days ago I got a call from a friend who works for the City, suggesting that I talk with a new Ypsilanti homeowner by the name of John Feldkamp for my Ypsi Immigration Interview series. As it turns out, he’s not really new to Ypsi, as he received his undergrad degree from Eastern Michigan University several years ago and never really left. But, as I always love hearing stories about EMU staff members who choose to settle down in the City, I thought that I’d go ahead with it… Feldcamp, by the way, is the Associate Director of the EMU Honors College.
JOHN: I was raised on the border of Saline and Clinton, and moved to Ypsilanti when I started at Eastern Michigan University in September 2003.
MARK: I wasn’t aware that you’d gone to college here. I though that you’d just recently come here in order to help run the Honors College at EMU…
JOHN: I actually came to EMU when I began college. I wanted to be a high school math teacher, and my sister had attended EMU before me for their Music Education program. Therefore, I knew about EMU’s reputation for having a great College of Education. She was a member of the Honors College (previously a program) at EMU, and really encouraged me to pursue the Honors College while I was in school. Although I didn’t come to EMU because of the Honors College, it’s what has kept me in Ypsilanti. As a student in the program, the requirements led me to engaging places in the City and really made me want to live here. Now that I work at EMU, it has just developed into this ideal home/work situation.
MARK: Just to be clear, have you lived here ever since you first came to college in 2003, or did you move away for a while?
JOHN: Correct, I have lived in the Ypsilanti area since 2003. I lived on EMU’s campus for three years, and have lived in apartments and my current house since then.
MARK: Why did you choose to settle in Ypsilanti? Quite a few EMU faculty and staff, as I’m sure you know, choose not to live here?
JOHN: My wife and I lived in many apartments in the City while we were in school, and we just always loved the ability to walk or ride our bikes to multiple places that mean so much to us. We love going to the Ypsilanti Food Co-Op, our favorite restaurant is Tower Inn, and we’ve spent countless evenings in EMU’s University Park. We have owned a plot in the Recreation Park Community Garden, my wife was a co-founder of EMU’s Giving Garden, and we have strong ties to many groups, people, and places in the City. When we decided it was time to own a home, we looked at various places, including neighborhoods in Ann Arbor. At the time, when we were searching for a home, I worked at the University of Michigan (North Campus), and being able to use public transportation to get to and from my job was a very high priority for me. However, we really loved the location of a house in College Heights. We definitely considered economic factors, proximity to family, and the house itself, but the four things that really convinced us that this was the house meant for us were the proximity to diverse food options, public transportation, sidewalks, and a park. We’ve also discovered that many of our neighbors have connections with EMU (faculty members, alumni, and staff), which has allowed us to create a stronger community in our neighbordhood and on EMU’s campus. On a daily basis, I am really happy that these were the priorities that guided our decision.
MARK: I don’t know if the initiative is still ongoing, but, as I recall, there was a program in place not too long ago to incentivize EMU faculty and staff to buy homes in the community. Did you by chance take advantage of that program, and, if so, did it help influence your decision to buy a home here?
JOHN: No, I did not. However, I love the idea of encouraging people to live where they work. Our work has more meaning, and we feel more invested with where we live since both our jobs and house are in the same community.
MARK: How has your perception of Ypsilanti changed now that you’re a homeowner? Has anything surprised you?
JOHN: The City is so friendly, and it is really nice to see how integrated and collaborative the different businesses and organizations are with one another. People are so well-informed when it comes to local activities, and really do make an effort to come out and support one another. What surprised me the most about living in our neighborhood is how quiet it is. My wife and I expected to hear traffic on Washtenaw, but we never feel like it’s a distraction, and sometimes we forget how close we are to a major street in the City. We also really enjoy hearing the marching bands in the late summer and fall, and the faint train whistle as we fall asleep at night.
MARK: I understand from the mutual friend that put us in touch with one another that you’ve made it your mission to get the EMU students that you’re working with more engaged in the community. Do you have an idea as to how this might manifest itself?
JOHN: Many EMU students are involved in organizations on campus, many of which do great work in Ypsilanti. This upcoming year, our office plans to work closely with the City of Ypsilanti to develop events and activities to make sure that there are organized ways for students to engage with the surrounding area. Some ideas we’ve discussed include integrating our calendars and organizing students to attend events as a group. For example, participating in activities like going to the Farmers’ Market. I would like to consider programming that allows our students to place their program of study and Honors work in context with the surrounding community. I’m really looking forward to hearing how students and Ypsilanti residents believe we can do this!
MARK: So you’re talking university-wide, and not just the Honors College?
JOHN: My work specifically focuses on Honors students. However, we like to try new things in the Honors College that could be implemented for all of EMU. We have strong relationships with the students we work with in our office, and that, coupled with the fact that the students we work with are very strong academically, allow us to try new educational experiences, and we share with others the results of those activities. For example, at Honors orientation for incoming first-year students, we have current Honors students and alumni show their research projects and share their educational experiences with the new students in a colloquium. This is a way for us to help expose new students to concrete examples of research, and show them how they can begin conducting research as early as their first year in college. This has really helped increase our students’ desires to study abroad, present at conferences, and reach out to professors very early in their academic careers. The positive results from this type of program presents our school with new ways to consider how we engage with all EMU students.
MARK: I’ve had friends over the years who have attended the Honors College, but I really know very little about the program. How many students do you have, and what does the program entail? Are the students, for instance, engaged in larger group projects, which could be community-based?
JOHN: This past year, we had about 1,100 students in the program. And we expect our largest incoming class of Honors students this year. We compose about 6% of all undergraduate students at EMU. The Honors College was founded in 1984, which means we are approaching our 30th year in existence. Relative to many honors colleges and programs, we have a long history. Students can graduate with up to three types of Honors while at EMU: University Honors, Departmental Honors, and Highest Honors. Something specifically unique about our program is that it allows students to begin at various points in their academic career. For example, our program allows current students and transfer students to begin later in their academic career. Access is a very high priority for our office, and we want to make sure all students can have an opportunity to pursue an Honors education. We seek students who have a college GPA of 3.50 or high school students who have a 3.50 GPA and a 25 ACT (or the equivalent SAT). However, we also consider students’ essays and letters of recommendation, and we do not cap the number of students we can admit in a year. Therefore, we really have an opportunity to evaluate the individual when we are considering prospective students.
We offer Honors sections of courses, which are capped at 20 students. This provides Honors students small, interactive learning environments and creates discussion-based, peer-led learning environments. Honors students really enjoy this because it allows them to develop close relationships with their fellow students, and work closely with their professors. As someone who has advised students on which courses to take for their program of study, it is incredibly rewarding to hear when a student had a positive experience in a course you encouraged them to take. It is also fun to see how work in their courses has led them to their life’s passion, which they might not have even been aware of before they started college. Our students’ work can definitely lead to community-based projects, and I have seen examples of how students have integrated their work into the local area. I believe students seek ways to see how their passions can contribute and make a difference in the world, and our curriculum provides them an avenue to incorporate that desire into their college education.
MARK: What, in your opinion, would be an ideal project for Honors College students looking to engage locally? Or, to step back a bit, what kinds of things do you think they’d find of interest, in a broader sense? Sustainability? Entrepreneurship? K-12 education?
JOHN: Over the years, I have seen hundreds of projects, ranging across the humanities, sciences, and arts, and, in the end, they all started with the same general motivation: curiosity. Our courses and curriculum are meant to expose students to a myriad of topics, themes, issues, and events, and we want our students to consider all of these things when they begin to work on their thesis projects. We encourage our students to pursue projects that allow them to harness that interdisciplinary curiosity into a focused question, and encourage them not only explore the topic, but also themselves. We encourage students to be bold with their thoughts and to be inquisitive. Whether it be with an issue in economics, education, and/or health, the project would be able to address a larger question that could be considered in other areas of study and contribute to an academic field’s literature. In turn, contributing to the field’s theory will be able to help develop today’s current practices and contribute toward the public good. However, at the end of the project, we also want the student to be able to look back on their journey and not only be happy with what they produced, but also with what they learned about themselves along the way.
MARK: How do we keep EMU students in the community after graduation?
JOHN: This seems like an easy answer at first, however, this becomes a complex question rather quickly. While I was in graduate school, I researched where students reside after they graduate from college. It truly is one of the most complex questions because it is so relative to the individual. Of course employment opportunities are right at the top, and students sometime feel that they cannot live where they necessarily want to (at least initially) due to the pressures of finding a job. With college graduates having increasing student debt, financial opportunities do become more salient. Therefore, ensuring that there are jobs available for graduates is critical. However, there is an emotional investment that comes when one decides where they live upon graduation. Feeling involved, whether it be through family and friends living nearby or by enjoying local organizations, really does mean a lot. One finding in my research that really stuck with me is that individuals seek places that allow them to have the opportunity to make change. That is why I find it so important to make sure that our current EMU students know what opportunities are around them in the community. I do not want to recreate the same activities and events that I have participated in as a student and resident because I still have so much to do while I’m here too. However, I hope that they can experience as much meaning as I have because this truly is a wonderful city with wonderful people, and I look forward to creating so many more memories while I am here too.
MARK: I’ve been increasingly impressed by EMU students as of late. It seems to me that more of them are venturing off campus, and not just to go to bars, but to actually work in the community. The folks involved in the Ypsi Free Skool group, for instance. They’re building tiny libraries in the park, helping out with things like the reintroduction of native plants on Water Street, and organizing classes for community members, student and non-student alike, on subjects ranging from permaculture design to political history. It could just be a aberration, but my sense is that young people want to be more involved in their communities.
JOHN: I could not agree more. It is really amazing to me to hear how our students are involved in multiple organizations, typically with multiple leadership positions. I regularly send emails out to our students, making them aware of various opportunities to volunteer, and I often hear back from the organizations how impressed they are with the students who follow up. When recruiting, a common question asked of me is, “What local groups can I volunteer with or work with in the area?” I have so much faith and confidence in our students because I see daily how they do things that benefit the community.
MARK: I had an interesting meeting with someone at EMU a few years ago, when I was kicking around the idea of launching a bike-powered movie series in Riverside Park. He was of the opinion that Riverside Park was too far away from EMU for students to walk. Do you get that sense? And, if it is the case, how do we change that? How do you change the culture of a college that, to a large degree, is an insular, commuter school, with students who, I think it’s safe to say, are more likely to be working and supporting themselves than students, say, in Ann Arbor?
JOHN: The number of students who are living on EMU’s campus is increasing significantly, and likewise there is a deliberate focus to integrate commuter students into campus activities. I think the recent work completed on Cross Street has really developed the bridge between the Depot Town area and EMU, and, as more students familiarize themselves with the local area, they will find new locations to make meaningful college experiences. As the City’s activities become more integrated with EMU’s activities, I believe the lines will blur with regards to where events technically take place, and students will just view the area as their local community. For me personally, Riverside Park is one of my favorite spots in the area. (It’s actually where I proposed to my wife.) We’ve spent countless walks going back and forth from EMU’s campus to the park, and love the time we spent along the way. Like us, I truly believe that students seek places they can have those enjoyable walks with significant others and friends, and, as we continue to promote community-based activities, I think we will naturally find more and more students in the local Ypsilanti area.
I had another question for John, but, seeing as how he’s relatively new to the EMU staff, I thought that I’d hold off on asking it. If there’s anyone else in the audience from EMU, though, I’d love to know their thoughts on the following.
BONUS QUESTION: Over the years, it’s been relatively clear to those of us who pay attention that EMU has been following a trajectory away from the City. With the exception of the Business School, which was built more than 30 years ago on Michigan Avenue (for various political reasons), all of the University’s growth over the past several decades has been on the other side of campus, away from the City. I don’t doubt that they had good reason to pull away from the City during the 70s, when Depot Town, as I understand it, was home to biker gangs, and crime was relatively bad, but, at this point in our history, it seems shortsighted. At least it seems to me that there needs to be a recognition that our destinies are intertwined, and that neither of us will be successful without the other. Instead, though, we still see things like the student union moving away from Washtenaw, and the university trying to close College Place, one of the main thoroughfares connecting the City and the campus. As an EMU insider, I’m curious to know if you get the sense that the willingness to engage is growing on the part of the University community?
So, any takers?