Greetings from Pleasantville: Students from small towns claim 'there's so much to do here and you don't even know it'
For Manistee senior Brianna Walter, the small city of Mount Pleasant is by far the liveliest and most densely populated place she's ever lived.
"I hear a lot of people say 'oh, there's nothing to do in Mount Pleasant,'" Walter said. "I always say 'you don't understand — there's so much to do here and you don't even know it.'"
Though she moved to Manistee the summer after graduating from high school, Walter grew up in Fountain, Michigan — a village in Mason County with a population of 193 according to the 2010 census.
Like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others at Central Michigan University, Walter is a student for whom Mount Pleasant is the largest city she's ever lived in. Whereas students hailing from cities like Detroit or Grand Rapids might take Mount Pleasant's modest attractions for granted, the city for Walter brings an exciting new variety of things to do.
Back home, Walter's downtown district consisted of a gas station and convenience store called the Fountain Market, a bank and a bar. Coming to Mount Pleasant was first time she has been within traveling distance of stores like Target or T.J. Maxx – two outlets she now visits often.
“There was absolutely no place to go shopping in Fountain – that does not exist there,” she said. “The closet (retail store) was a 30 minute drive away.”
Growing up, she didn't have things called "neighbors" so much as she knew of a single family who lived down the road from her. The family grew to be very close with Walter's family, with Walter herself riding the bus and attending school with their children from kindergarten to her senior year of high school.
While the population of Mount Pleasant is several times larger and more active than any place she's lived before, Walter felt welcome by the city's small-town atmosphere when she visited the first time.
"(The move to Mount Pleasant) wasn't quite as difficult as I thought it would be," Walter said. "Everyone (in Mount Pleasant) is so down-to-Earth and friendly. It has a bit of a small-town feeling, but it was also a lot more than I was used to growing up around. It felt like I was somewhere new and there were all these things to do and all of these restaurants and shops.”
Walter's favorite thing about Mount Pleasant is the opportunities to be around nature, which she says reminds her of where she grew up, specifically Island Park with its nature trails.
Finding your niche
The difference an active downtown can make is something Powers senior Clarissa Kell learned when she first came to CMU.
"We don't really have a downtown where I'm from," Kell said. "Downtown (in Mount Pleasant) is just awesome. There are so many options of bars to go to, and they're always packed. When I went to bars back home, they're not that packed, and there's a lot more old people."
Kell grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Powers, a town with a population of 415 in Menominee County in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
One thing Kell remembers about Powers is the sense of community and familiarity between the town's residents.
"Everyone knows everyone," Kell said. "I could literally tell you everyone who I graduated with, who were in the classes ahead of me and behind me. When I was a senior in high school, I knew the name of pretty much anyone the I saw in my entire high school.
"I like (Mount Pleasant) a little bit more because not everyone knows who I am, and I can blend into the crowd in more places."
Kell thinks Mount Pleasant has a small-town feel of its own, at least compared to larger Michigan cities like Grand Rapids or Lansing.
"It's bigger than what I was used to, but at the same time you find your own little community within the town," Kell said. "You get a lot of those small connections along the way, but at the same time, I see an entirely new person every day."
Senior Kathryn Loesel hails from Gladwin, a small city about 40 miles northeast of Mount Pleasant with a population of 2,875. For her, living in Mount Pleasant for so long has drastically improved her confidence and social skills.
Loesel is currently studying abroad at Edge Hill University in England. She claims her experiences navigating Mount Pleasant have helped her feel comfortable walking around larger cities.
"Just walking around (Mount Pleasant) and having to learn how to navigate a busier city has really helped me," Loesel said. "The other day I took a half-hour train ride to Liverpool by myself. In freshman year, I never could have done that — but I can after living in Mount Pleasant."
Loesel's favorite aspect of Mount Pleasant is how the city takes CMU students into account, organizing downtown events and attractions like Art Walk and Max and Emily's Summer Concert Series to make people more engaged with the community.
Initial feelings of awkwardness and trepidation are common for students coming to college from small communities, said Kwyn Trevino, multicultural advisor for Beddow Hall. Hailing from Bath, a small community near Lansing with a population of 2,083, Trevino had her own experiences with the shock that comes from moving to a larger city, and uses that experience to help others.
"Mount Pleasant is really big town – my town had a single flashing red light, so (Mount Pleasant) seems really big," Trevino said. "(Bath) was a really small town, and it wasn't diverse at all. Coming (to Central) and being immersed in that diversity and being in classes and getting to know people of different backgrounds was a new experience for me."
For students intimidated by the new environment, Trevino recommends being open to the changes and opportunities that the campus offers.
"A lot of people from small towns feel that all of their friends are back home, so they want to go home a lot," she said. "It can be scary for (students) when back home is the only thing they know, and trying to reestablish themselves here can be tough.
"I often tell students to not be afraid of spending a few weekends up here. Instead of going home on the weekends, go to a football game, go to a movie or open your door in your (residence) hall. Meet new people."