'Great way to strengthen, maintain town relations': Students, community discuss issues living off campus
Editor's Note: Reporter Masha Smahliuk is an undergraduate international student. This did not affect reporting in any way.
When the last day of finals week already brought snow and holiday excitement, students and community members gathered for lunch and conversation.
Central Michigan University students, faculty, staff, landlords and others gathered at The Eatery in the Towers Community on Dec. 16. Guests filled small tables around the room, and students had a chance to take the center space. They took part in an engaging discussion about students' experience living off-campus and focused on maximizing resources for an influx of international students this year.
Renee Watson, vice president of Student Affairs, organized the event. Watson said the event was an opportunity for both students and landlords to voice their issues or concerns.
“It was a great way to strengthen and maintain town relations,” Watson said in an interview with Central Michigan Life prior to the event. “We want to be good community partners. I thought this was a great way to end the semester to have this program.”
Watson said because she has been at CMU for a short four months, she wanted to build strong relationships with the community and show that Student Affairs is a resource which they can use.
“I want city officials to know that I’m here and that Student Affairs can be a portal… to contact us so that if they have a concern about student that they are not in this alone,” Watson said.
Around a dozen landlords and city officials attended the event including representatives from Partlo Property Management, I-Ride, GreenTree Co-op, the CMU Police Department and others.
CMU was represented by the Office of Global Engagement (OGE), Graduate and International Recruitment, Student Activities and Involvement Center, CMU Cares and others.
During the discussion, five students, both domestic and international, participated in a Q&A hosted by Stan Shingles, assistant vice president of Student Affairs. He said student leaders who were willing to share their stories were selected by Student Affairs and Graduate and International Recruitment.
"We have developed relationships by virtue of what their (students) experiences, in term of good experiences and challenging experiences. We know that they use their voices to try to advocate for things getting better," Shingles said. "I want to hear from our students."
“I want folks to see how much the campus (has) grown,” Watson said. “We’re in this together. We want our students to enjoy Mount Pleasant. We want people to understand all resources.”
Emma Massey and Jada Grandy, CMU seniors, said one the biggest issues for students living off campus was lack of community.
Massey said, in August, she had 13 friends at her off campus residence to celebrate the end of Impact, a multicultural program for incoming CMU students, where she was a mentor. Massey received a warning from her neighboors at midnight. She said she turned the music down, but later, police came to her house.
Massey said her friend talked to the police, while she managed her anxiety. She said her friend was then handcuffed and put into the police car.
“This was a very traumatic incident,” Massey said. “Then once they finally released him from the car, he’s clearly in distress.”
Massey said her friend was afraid that, as a Black man, he would face a lack of empathy from the police officer. She and her friend were given tickets for disturbing the peace.
Massey said the situation was unfair and she noticed “a ... lack of empathy as well during that situation."
After the incident happened, Massey brought it to the attention Shingles, Watson and Jen Nottingham, director of Recreation Programs and Student Activities. She said she appreciated them listening.
Grandy said she was not present when the incident happened, but said she noticed a lack of spaces on campus where students of color can utilize.
“We're not a nuisance,” Grandy said. “We're a part of this community and we should be able to use these spaces. But a lot of times we're denied because there's things that have happened in the past.”
Students can now use the Student Activity Center (SAC), after it closes, for events and gatherings without a fee. For that students should reserve the space. Grandy said they are working to bring similar opportunities to areas off-campus.
“This is something that ... some other students have been working with Student Affairs about creating better community lessons with students of color off-campus and the greater Mount Pleasant community,” Grandy said.
According to the Morning Sun, CMU and Mount Pleasant police have a practice of visiting students during the move-in week to welcome them to the community and inform of the resources available for them.
The event also addressed issues for international students living off campus.
Ling Zhang, a director of Graduate and International Recruitment, presented information on student recruitment.
She that CMU expects around 300 new international students in January. She said international student enrollment at CMU significantly grew this past fall. Many international students are in graduate programs, she explained, meaning they often choose off-campus housing.
Jennifer Evanuik, executive director of OGE, spoke about issues international students face when living off-campus.
She said coming to a foreign country, like the U.S., as a non-native English speaker can make it hard to understand things like leases. She encouraged landlords to explain the terminology in housing contracts or contact OGE for help with communication.
Evanuik said some students are surprised to find out many leases are 12-month's long and have upfront costs associated with signing a lease. Students also might not expect occupancy limits, she said, because some of them come with partners or children.
International students in attendance at the event said another concern of theirs was lack of access to transportation. Isabella County Transportation Commission Executive Director Rick Collins said I-Ride is in the process of creating an app to make the service more accessible.
Watson asked a question about the diversity of food on-campus. GreenTree Co-op representatives, Sarah Christensen and Laura Coffee, said people can request food they want to see on their shelves.
“We enjoy hearing what international students are looking for,” Coffee said. “We love food. We appreciate students asking.”
GreenTree is working to offer products that students have already requested. They now offer Indian foods, Japanese and Chinese condiments, bulk spices and greens Coffee said.
After the event, landlords and city officials had an opportunity to ask questions as well. Students said they appreciated the event and a chance to be heard.
“You are your biggest advocate,” Grandy said. “A lot of people don’t know what’s going on until you say something's is going on.”