Flint GEAR UP students tour CMU, Howard University students return to Flint for community service

FLINT, Michigan — On Friday, March 8, GEAR UP students and teachers from the International Academy of Flint and Flint Southwestern Classical Academy, Flint Center for Educational Excellence staff, and Howard University students journeyed to Central Michigan University (CMU) to enjoy a full day of academic and athletic activities.

GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, is funded nationally by the U.S. Department of Education and locally by the King-Chavez-Parks Initiative and the Workforce Development Agency.

Its purpose is to increase the number of low-income students who are significantly prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education by promoting academic excellence through various locally designed and innovative early intervention services — like college field trips.

With over 100 students in tow, Flint GEAR UP students had the opportunity to meet and talk with Bob Davies, the president of CMU. President Davies, who recently announced his intent to step down at the end of the year, spoke about his life’s journey, his love of sports, and how he became president of a major university.

Students engage with President Davies as he talks about his life and how he became president of Central Michigan University on March 8, 2024. (Courtesy photo | Nia Boone of CMU Pathways Program)
He jokingly bantered with students as they asked questions about what majors to take to become a university president, his greatest challenges, how much money he makes, and any advice and support he could offer them on college life. President Davies concluded his time with a roaring Fire Up, Chips! chant and photosession.

Four Howard University students volunteering in Flint for Alternative Spring Break and two Central Michigan University Pathways students answered questions about the ins and outs of being a college student during an engaging panel discussion. GEAR UP students were then asked about their perceptions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), predominately white institutions (PWIs), and day-to-day life in Flint.  

GEAR UP students were also given a tour of CMU’s Indoor Athletic Complex (IAC). The 80,000-square-foot complex houses a turf bay, academic center, weight room, training room, team meeting room, administrative offices, baseball and track and field offices. During the tour, students engaged with CMU football players to test their abilities in a quick football throw and soccer kick.

Central Michigan University athletes give one Flint student an opportunity to test his football skills on March 8, 2024. (Xzavier Simon | Flintside.com)
Finally, Flint GEAR UP students attended an NCAA MAC Conference game between Central and Eastern Michigan University, which CMU won.

“Central Michigan University’s GEAR UP program provides a variety of interactive educational experiences for our students. The CMU vs. EMU basketball game was the first college basketball game that our cohort students have attended. I’m so grateful for them to have the opportunity to participate in these types of events,” explains Brittney Thomas, Associate Director for CMU’s GEAR UP program. “Experiences such as these provide our students with positive exposure to college life. Our goal is to ensure all of our students know that college is achievable, accessible, and affordable.”

Howard University Alternative Spring Break students return to Flint in celebration of 30 years of service

Celebrating 30 years of service, at the beginning of March, 80 Howard University students descended upon Flint for an entire week to participate in Howard University Alternative Spring Break (HUASB).

ASB is a program offered through predominantly white institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities that provides a community service learning experience on a local level during the traditional Spring Break of the academic year.

Traditionally, college and university students might utilize their spring break to travel back home or out of the country, but Alternative Spring Break gives students a different option.

According to Andrina Jean, Howard University’s Alternative Spring Break is “a nationally recognized service learning program where we emphasize leadership building and developing goals with citizens. We want our students to be able to go into spaces and leave it better than they found it. Our program is headed to 20 different communities across the country. And we’ve been partnering for Flint for a couple of years.”

Howard University Alternative Spring Break students pose inside Southwestern Classical Academy on March 6, 2024. (Courtesy photo | Jada Lewis of Howard University)
With accommodations at Riverfront Residence Hall, Howard University students explored Flint by volunteering and engaging with community organizations like the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, First Presbyterian Church of Flint, Crossover Outreach, Flint Watershed Coalition, and Holmes STEM And Southwestern Classical Academy.

Flintside caught up with 17 Howard University students to discuss their impressions of Flint, the lessons from Holmes and Southwestern students, and what they learned about themselves.

Flintside: What have y’all experiences been thus far in Flint? 

J. Lewis: “You notice that [students] don’t have a lot of exposure to people outside their community – even Black people outside their community. We’re telling them stuff that we do on campus, and they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that existed.’ We’re talking about programs that already exist in their school, and they’re like, ‘We didn’t know that was there.’ It shows a lack of exposure, but with that, there’s a lot of opportunity to teach them a lot.”

S. Wofford: “Some kids, they’re like, ‘Your school is preparing you to be successful and have a great career [while] my school is preparing me to have a nine-to-five.’ To say that to college students who you don’t know is very telling of their level of awareness and consciousness surrounding not only what’s happening in school but also in their city and country. It’s been humbling in that sense.”

Howard University students are helping and engaging with the Flint community during their Alternative Spring Break which celebrates 30 years of service. (Courtesy photo | Jada Lewis of Howard University)
Flintside: What was your perception of Flint, and has that changed?

S. Abdurrham: “Driving into town was strange because I didn’t see anybody outside. I hadn’t experienced anything like that. I chose to come to Flint because I’ve been trying to expand my worldview. Coming here and being able to speak with the students has given me a different level of relatability and emboldened me to help them in the ways I’m able to.”  

S. Ganthier: “Coming here, even this morning, I was like, I know why we’re here, but why are we really here? Talking to [students], these kids want somebody to listen. They’re full of life, smiling, still seeing their futures even in this tough situation.” 

J. Robertson: “Before coming to Flint, I didn’t realize, but people do real work here. It’s not nothing to play with; it’s not funny. People pour into these kids. You don’t see it until you experience it. We all have something special to offer, and it doesn’t matter where you come from. One thing that I’ve always done was be a bystander, but after this, never again. I’m not going to sit on the sideline and watch anymore.”

Pictured are Howard students and First Presbyterian Church of Flint staff. (Courtesy photo | Jada Lewis of Howard University)
Flintside: There’s so much going on in Flint, but you have to step outside your comfort zone to experience it. Working with Holmes and Southwestern students, what are some things learned from engaging with them?

K. Jones: “They act the way they act because of their circumstances and environment. One of the kids mentioned how demoralizing it was to go around the city and see run-down buildings. Some students who want to make changes and voice their opinions are looked down upon because why are you trying to do this while everybody else is not? There are people with bright ideas who want to make change, and they need to see that change can happen.”  

A. Jean: “The students just needed a space to ask questions. They’re eager to learn, and I think sitting down and giving them paths like college is not the only option. They have so many questions for us because they’re genuinely interested. It’s one thing to say you need to advocate for yourself and get that information, but they need people to go to them because they don’t feel comfortable or don’t know what questions to ask.” 

J. Williams: “Something I’ve observed while being here is that students want to be heard but don’t want to be judged by the questions they ask. When we opened the floor, it was like, 'well, [I'll] dip my toe in, but I’m not going to step all the way in unless I feel this is a comfortable space.' So, opening up that space and allowing them to feel and know that this is where your questions are being heard and you can get a better understanding.”

With over 20 communities impacted in 2024, Howard University's Alternative Spring Break continues its tradition of serving in Flint. (Courtesy photo | Jada Lewis of Howard University)
Flintside: I’m curious about the similarities you’ve noticed between yourselves and these students.

I. Washington: “There was a girl, and we were talking about college readiness and getting her application together. She went to see Spellman and was thinking about that and other schools. She was excited and nervous, and [everything] she was feeling, I remember feeling the same. She had a lot of questions, and I was happy to be able to talk with her. I saw a little bit of senior high school me.”

A. Hills: “There was a girl who said she wanted to be a gynecologist, and that’s what I’m on track right now to be. But I also see it’s a big difference from the high school I went to. I heard so many stories about them talking about ‘I want to get out’ or ‘I want to do something big,’ but I don’t think they know how to get there or what steps to take. They need that support and nourish the dreams they want to achieve, and I hope this is an environment where those dreams and goals can be nurtured and grow.” 

V. Presley: “One thing that grounded me was hearing some students want to be doctors. I told them about the path that I’m taking to be a doctor as well. They were telling me they have problems at home, and it’s hard for them to stay focused. I did tell my story. I related to them and said regardless of what you have going on at home, if you want to be a doctor, if you want to put your foot forward and do what you want to do, then don’t let what’s going on at home affect how you are academically and don’t let your struggles hold you back.”

Flintside: For my last question, what have you all learned about yourself during this process?

A. Zarrieff: “A lot of these kids here have a finite goal to make money. I’m seeking a film major, so having the freedom to go into my art, I realized these kids don’t have that freedom because they don’t have the same luxuries. I want to promote, yes, money is important, but you should also go for what makes you happy in your life.”

P. Kiarie: “When we signed up for [Alternative Spring Break], we chose an initiative. When choosing, I didn’t want to do youth empowerment because I was like, ‘What am I going to teach these kids?’ But once I got here, one thing I realized about myself was that I had a lot of wisdom to offer. I just wanted to cram as much information as I could because I have three days to tell them everything so they can succeed.”

A. Foskin-Smikle: “When I first came here, it made me realize that I am privileged and come from a privileged city. I never thought I was until I came here. I saw that I did have a lot of family and financial support. It was saddened when I was talking to these [students] because they didn’t have that at home. I thought it was natural, and that’s what every household had. Coming here has opened my eyes, and I will apply what I learned here to my future nursing career. Now, I can handle different situations and individuals because I have an idea of what it’s like to grow up without.”

Click the following links to learn more about Central Michigan University’s GEAR UP, the Flint Center for Educational Excellence, and Howard University Alternative Spring Break.
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Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.