FLINT, Michigan—It all started when Phyllis Sykes looked out the window while dining at 501 Bar and Grill and saw a group of international students walking down Saginaw Street. She saw an opportunity for the Flint community to really be engaged on a global level. She wondered if the students felt welcomed. She wondered what their experience was really like. And, she went into action.
Sykes approached community leaders with a simple message: “Look, this is an opportunity for Flint to leverage what they bring to the community.”
After a decade of seeing booming international enrollment at local colleges and universities, Sykes launched an initiative in 2015 to create the International Center of Greater Flint. Sykes joined forces with Emily Feuerherm, assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan-Flint who previously had worked with refugees in California.
Together, they conducted focus groups with international students from UM-Flint, Kettering University and Mott Community College to find out more about what the students wanted to experience while studying in Flint.
The overwhelming response: To be involved with the community while here. To be active. To be included.
Enter Phyllis Sykes and Adil Mohhammed, who co-founded the International Center of Greater Flint and its three pronged purpose: information and referral, economic development, and multicultural understanding and dialogue.
“We want to make Flint a welcoming place for people who want to come here and contribute and be a part of the community,” said Sykes, who also notes that bringing people together is a way to spark creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
Over the last two years, the work has focused on garnering support from throughout the community, successfully obtaining its 501(c)(3) status, working at a grassroots level, and recently launching an elementary school international dialogues pilot program.
“We’ve done the groundwork. We’ve done the grassroots work to get people to buy into it, and now we are ready to start doing some things,” Sykes said.
Through a new pilot program, international students from UM-Flint are hosting five dialogues with students at Pierce Elementary School in Flint.
As part of the Pierce Elementary School International Dialogues pilot project, fifth- and sixth-graders in Flint are introduced to students studying abroad here. In a series of five meetings, the international students share information about their cultures, their traditional clothing, pictures from their home countries, and (perhaps most importantly) answer questions.
For Damilola Alao, a student from Nigeria currently studying at UM-Flint, the dialogues also provided her with the opportunity to see inside the walls of an American elementary school. And, while talking with and increasing awareness for adults also is important, it is particularly rewarding to talk at Pierce.
“Children don’t have boundaries. When they see things, they talk about things,” Alao said. “As an international student, we decided to come all the way from our country to experience the country, the community that we are in. .... We have things to offer to the community, not just take from the community.”
While the initial creation of the center followed the increase in international students coming to Flint universities, its focus goes beyond students to also include immigrant and refugee populations—which also consistently mentioned during focus groups the need for a place to access services and become connected to the community.
An International Institute of Flint previously was located on Stevenson Street in downtown Flint, adjacent to the UM-Flint campus. It focused on serving the local immigration population, but closed in 2007.
Sykes said the International Center hopes someday to have a building that will be easily accessible and available to serve the community—but funding will be the key to being able to achieve that goal.
In the meantime, the International Center is continuing to move forward and build programing.
An international food fest is being planned for January, additional Sister City partnerships also are being pursued, and the volunteer group Flint International Friends Association provides opportunities for international students to practice their language skills.
“It’s another way to broaden Flint’s scope, enabling Flint to interact on a global level and for the globe to know about Flint. We see this as a chance to re-brand, re-invent Flint,” Sykes said.