MCSP combines shared intellectual experiences, intentional community building, and public service components to serve and empower student leaders. Photo by Natalie Condon.

This is an article from the spring 2020 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.

It’s 2002! The Top 40 station is either playing “Hot in Herre” by Nelly or “In the End” by Linkin Park or, and you can pretend you don’t remember it, “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton. In the fall Gilbert Nuñez (A.B. ’06) will be a first-generation college student at the University of Michigan, but in the summer before he starts, he’s wondering what Ann Arbor will be like—and he’s got some concerns.

“I think I was overwhelmed by what it would look like,” Nuñez says, “and I was afraid of getting lost.” Nuñez knew he wanted to be part of a student community that shared his values about social justice, and that summer he received a mailer for something called the Michigan Community Scholars Program (MCSP). 

The mailer led to a phone call, which led to Nuñez joining MCSP, an academic community that cared a lot about things that Nuñez cared about—about reaching back and helping others, and about standing up and having your voice heard. 

Nuñez’s work with MCSP amplified the other academic work he was doing at U-M, leading him to eventually get his doctorate and work on voting rights and civic participation. He now works as an electoral data analyst with Community Change Action in Washington, D.C.

“I feel very fortunate to have received that mailing from MCSP,” Nuñez says. “It eventually led me to my career.”

MCSP Director David Schoem says that Nuñez’s experience isn’t unique. Schoem regularly hears from alumni who credit MCSP with supporting them meaningfully during their time at U-M and for helping them build a community of friends that they’re still close to. 

“The university can be a very competitive and stressful environment,” says Schoem. “For us, though, our goal is for everyone to succeed and for us to help them succeed. Our emphasis on building a diverse community and engaged relationships results in very high retention rates and academic success. Students enjoy building community and making lifelong friendships, but it’s also serious work—and it’s work grounded in the best practices in higher education.

“The result is that MCSP students thrive personally, academically, intellectually, and socially. We’re proud of the work we do and we’re proud of them.”

Making Connections

Started in 1999, MCSP spun out of a similar program, the 21st Century Living Learning Program, which was ending. Based on requests from students and support from faculty, MCSP was established by then LSA Interim Dean Patricia Gurin and Schoem, then assistant vice president for academic and student affairs. The founding directors were Penny Pasque as program director and Schoem as faculty director, and Wendy A. Woods has served as associate director for the past 16 years. Since then, the program has moved from Mary Markley Hall to Couzens Hall to West Quad to East Quad and finally back to West Quad, where it lives now. But while the space may have changed, the program’s diverse community has remained true to its core mission.  

The 2020 version of the program combines a focus on deep and engaged learning with a vibrant and diverse community as well as service learning and intercultural communication and dialogue. Students enjoy shared and intentional coursework with their fellow MCSPers and robust academic support from program staff and faculty. The community service component has in the past connected students to community gardens in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood and today continues to work with survivors of persecution who are seeking asylum through Freedom House Detroit, naturalists and park preservation work in Ann Arbor, and K-12 students throughout Southeast Michigan through a range of in-school programs.

Students also have multiple opportunities for leadership, including on the program’s Intergroup Relations Council (IRC), a group that challenges students to speak and work across difference and to embrace dialogue as a force for change. For second-year student Latifa Cheaito, the IRC gave her an opportunity to host a dialogue with other students about mental health, an issue that’s important to her personally and professionally.

Cheaito is interested in continuing her education after graduation by going to medical school for psychiatry, partly so she can work to destigmatize mental health issues. She credits MCSP with enlarging her perspective around identity and culture in ways that made her see herself and her future professional work more clearly. 

“MCSP is diverse in so many ways,” Cheaito says. “It changes up the conversation to live with totally different people who are studying totally different things. I feel like I’ve learned so much more about myself through learning about others.” 

A Different Reality

In October 2019, MCSP celebrated its twentieth anniversary on campus. People who’d been part of the program throughout its history attended and spoke of the program’s importance, as did current students, faculty, and friends. LSA Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Tim McKay called it one of LSA’s signature successes, adding that “the work of MCSP rests at the very heart of the purpose of liberal arts education.”

Gilbert Nuñez was there, also.

He told the story of how, when he and his wife moved to Washington eight years ago, it was fellow MCSP alums who helped them move into their new apartment. Nuñez talked about meeting MCSP friends every year for Friendsgiving, and explained that he had even met his spouse, a fellow MCSP alum, in Couzens Hall. 

At the event, Schoem talked about meeting the challenges of the twenty-first-century world through education. Schoem also pointed out how important the cross-difference dialogue element of MCSP is in 2020 and beyond. 

“In MCSP, we’re modeling in students’ everyday life the highest ideals and aspirations of U-M’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative. We’re trying to experiment with a different reality,” says Schoem. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s engage across difference, let’s get to know our neighbors, let’s listen.’ This is how democracy is supposed to work.

“I’m very inspired by students living out the values of our program every day,” Schoem says. “It’s about community, about dialogue, about learning, and about service to others.”