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Off-campus programs connect MSU with the rest of the state

December 6, 2017
<p>Volunteers prune a tree at Memorial Park in Hancock, Mich. Their efforts were a part of a workshop that was run through Houghton County's MSU Extension, whose offices are 500 miles from East Lansing. Photo courtesy of Mike Schira.</p>

Volunteers prune a tree at Memorial Park in Hancock, Mich. Their efforts were a part of a workshop that was run through Houghton County's MSU Extension, whose offices are 500 miles from East Lansing. Photo courtesy of Mike Schira.

He's stationed eight and a half hours from East Lansing — in Hancock, a city of less than 5,000 near the northern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula — but Mike Schira is an MSU employee just like any other.

As a district educator with the MSU Extension program in Houghton County, Schira is a part of a wide-reaching initiative. MSU Extension is a program that brings the university's research and resources to the general public, with offices in every Michigan county except one. Houghton County's Extension also oversees programs for Keweenaw County, Michigan's northernmost and least-populous county.

"It gives us a chance to connect with the population of the whole state rather than just a small sample of the state," Schira said. "By being out this far, these counties out on the far western end of the Upper Peninsula, it gives the university an avenue or a network to talk to the folks up here." 

4-H, a non-profit youth organization known for its focus on science and agriculture, is run through the MSU Extension in Houghton and Keweenaw counties. Its focus on youth involvement means the Extension in those counties can serve not only as a resource for local residents, but also as a sort of recruitment tool for the university in one of the most remote parts of Michigan.

"They have a program they call 4-H Exploration Days, where the counties send contingencies of youth down to campus for a couple of days," Schira said. "That is well received, so it exposes our youth to MSU's campus and the campus resources down there." 

Schira said 4-H is the "highest-profile" program run through his county's extension, but far from the only one. As a natural resources educator, he is personally involved with invasive species and forest resources programs. Houghton County provides a natural base for this type of work as the Ottawa National Forest makes up most of the county's southern portion.

Despite the distance from campus, Schira said his program still functions within MSU's guidelines. Online conference calls can seamlessly connect East Lansing to Hancock. However, the distance does make it difficult for his extension's staff to attend on-campus events, so their attendance largely depends on the usefulness of the event to his locale.

"They have oversight over what we do, and there's still more contact than you'd think, especially with new technologies," Schira said. "The downside to being this far is a lot of the programming that's offered on-campus is a challenge to get to. It's expensive, it's a long way to go, and it's quite a commitment in time." 

The extension program is only one of the many outlets MSU has for extending its influence beyond East Lansing's city limits. In theory, MSU's Detroit Center is very similar to the MSU Extension in Houghton County; it's a way for the university to directly connect with Michigan residents outside of the Lansing area. However, Detroit — a city whose population is more than double that of the entire Upper Peninsula — has far different needs than rural Houghton County.

The Detroit Center predictably has far less of a focus on agriculture, focusing instead on the issues residents of a major urban area face. MSU's College of Education has a unit at the Center, at a time when the city seems to constantly struggle with teacher shortages and other educational issues. The Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program, a non-profit that the Center has a long-term partnership with, brings Detroit's underserved youth in contact with STEM programs they otherwise might not have been able to experience.

Director of MSU Detroit Center Jena Baker-Calloway believes programs like these reaffirm the center's purpose as an "investment" in the city.

"The university's decision to have this center is really paramount in terms of how they view the city of Detroit and its relevance to the future of the state," Baker-Calloway said. "It's a long term vision, a long term view of what kinds of collaborations and activities can happen."

Baker-Calloway said along with the University of Michigan, MSU was one of the first universities to establish a center in downtown Detroit, which kicked off a trend among Michigan colleges. In addition to Detroit's hometown university, Wayne State, other schools like Central Michigan and Lawrence Tech have followed MSU's lead, bringing resources and faculty from state universities to Detroit's downtown and Midtown districts.

"You've got a cadre of different state universities that have co-located since the U of M and MSU centers have been established here," Baker-Calloway said. 

As expansive as the MSU Detroit Center is, no current off-campus program is quite as ambitious as the one started 60 years ago, when MSU broke ground on an entirely new university. In 1957, Mathilda and Alfred Wilson, after whom Wilson Hall is named, donated their Oakland County estate to MSU, and with the help of then-President John Hannah, assisted in the creation of a satellite campus. MSU-Oakland became Oakland University in 1963 and became fully independent from MSU seven years later.

Shirley Paquette, archives assistant with OU Libraries, said historic Meadow Brook Hall — an 88,000-square-foot mansion on campus that was the Wilsons' former home — and other landmarks at Oakland serve as reminders of the connection between the two universities. Although she said she didn't know exactly what material was covered during OU's freshman orientation, she was confident Oakland students at least have some knowledge about their university's history and beginnings as an offshoot of MSU.

"I think it's pretty safe to say that during the orientation, OU's roots are brought up at some point." Paquette said. 

In 2011, Oakland began to offer programs through a repurposed office plaza in neighboring Macomb County. MSU now has a family tree, as its former satellite campus now has a satellite of its own.

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