by Zinta Aistars
This is a love story. A triple love story.
Yes, a growing and sometimes challenging triple love—between two Kalamazoo College graduates and the city of Detroit, between these two and their alma mater, and between these two: Leigh Ann Ulrey '11 and Sam Brennan '11.
Leigh Ann and Sam met as incoming freshmen. She was from Texas; he was from Grand Rapids, then Northville in his high school years, a suburban area west of Detroit. A country apart, but Leigh Ann and Sam connected at LandSea in Killarney, Canada, an opportunity that is part of the College’s first-year orientation program. They have been together, meeting challenges side-by-side, ever since.
It begins like this: "When I lived in Texas, I was looking at colleges somewhat nonchalantly, " said Leigh Ann. "Kalamazoo College kept sending postcards, and gave me a reason to take my search more seriously after I looked into what K had to offer, and that all started because I liked the funny name."
On the basis of that funny name, or perhaps in spite of it, Leigh Ann applied to Kalamazoo College and, to her pleasant surprise, found it was everything she was seeking in a college education. Much more than "just sitting in a classroom," as she put it, and she liked the study abroad options and the ratio of professors to students.
Moving so far from home was not a deterrent. "Of course, I missed my family, but I had moved six times by the time I was in 7th grade, so I was used to the changes that come with moving." Leigh Ann considered it a change in cultures, and Kalamazoo College would introduce her to many more cultures. Once she had arrived, she knew she wanted to major in psychology.
For his part, Sam Brennan did a general college search, looking for a small school with exciting opportunities. Kalamazoo College fit the part. He would cross the state and major in anthropology and sociology.
Both signed up for Landsea, Kalamazoo College's unique 18-day wilderness pre-orientation program.
Three years later they both came back as Landsea Leaders.
"We didn't talk much until the last day of LandSea," Leigh Ann smiled. "And then, we talked. We couldn't stop talking. We were up until 5 a.m. talking and found out we had a lot of common interests."
It was a formative moment, and another such moment happened when Leigh Ann heard Diane Seuss, writer-in-residence, during her first-year seminar.
"She said you can't wait for opportunities to fall in your lap. I will always remember that," Leigh Ann said. "She was also part of the reason I minored in women's studies."
Leigh Ann and Sam shared a similar study abroad experience in Thailand.
She said: "In Thailand, I learned to appreciate the value of people, how much knowledge and experience people have to share, not just the experts and top leaders."
He said: "In Thailand, I started thinking about sustainability. That experience was the seed for my interest in sustainability when I learned about taking care of farms, coral reefs, the islands."
Leigh Ann's Senior Individualized Project was titled "Communicating Sexual Consent," and it combined her interests in psychology and women's studies. Sam’s was titled "Sustainable Development, Millennials, and the Pursuit of Happiness," outlining the tensions between capitalism and sustainable development and what his generation could do about seemingly irreconcilable differences.
When the couple graduated in 2011 they considered: Where next?
Leigh Ann had never been to Detroit before she had come to K, and even then, she'd been put off by the warnings she had heard. Detroit was the most dangerous city in the country, Detroit was a dying city, Detroit had little to nothing to offer—that sort of thing. Sam, meanwhile, knew better. Detroit was pretty close to his home turf. He put Detroit as well as Chicago on his list of considerations for future
"I was figuring out my interests, thinking about where to go," Sam said, "and then I heard about City Year, and I was blown away."
City Year is a part of AmeriCorps, with a mission to build democracy through citizen service, civic leadership, and social entrepreneurship. Members mentor and tutor for a year to help youth avoid dropping out of school. Sam joined up, and so did Leigh Ann.
It was at a talk given to City Year participants that Sam and Leigh Ann first heard about Challenge Detroit. The end of their year with the organization was coming to an end, and they were once again facing the question: What next? The person giving the talk was Deirdre Greene, co-founder and organizer of Challenge Detroit, a partner organization to City Year, and she was telling her audience about her new organization.
"Detroit is the city of opportunity," Deirdre said. "It's not a city for the weak or the lazy, but those who are hard workers. Our criteria for participants are that you have passion and an attitude of wanting to do something to revitalize this important city."
With the loss of talent in Detroit over the past several decades, the city has taken a hard hit in economic and intellectual power. Challenge Detroit gathers young, innovative thinkers to live in the city for one year. During that year, they work to rejuvenate the city, each in his or her own way. As the founders, Deirdre Greene and Doyle Mosher, describe it, Challenge Detroit is: "One city, 10 team challenges, 30
organizations, hundreds of leaders, thousands of innovative thinkers, a community-wide effort, an explosion of ideas."
"For our first year, we had about 900 applicants," said Deirdre. "We narrowed those down to 100, and then we asked these applicants to create a one-minute video that we then posted on Facebook.
People could vote on applicants, and that narrowed it down to 60 finalists who then went on a two-day interview trip to meet a panel of professionals, tour the city, and spend some social time together. We brought it down to 29 applicants who have been hired for one year by 27 host companies—a couple companies chose more than one. Sam and Leigh Ann are two of the 29."
To have two people chosen from Kalamazoo College, Deirdre said, was nothing short of remarkable. The 29 fellows came to Detroit from across the country, and the competition was tough. Applicants were recent college graduates, with bachelors or masters degrees. Challenge Detroit was looking for a diversity of talent—business developers, artists, engineers, name it. The host companies for which they would work for that year would give them challenges to be innovative in their fields.
Sam was hired as an environmental coordinator by Edw. C. Levy Company in Dearborn. “Slag processing is the core of the Levy business,” he said. Levy provides services to steel mills and specializes in asphalt production and paving, ready-mix concrete, mining and land reclamation. “Slag is a steel making co-product, something that has usually been seen as waste, but Levy had developed ways to use slag in asphalt, concrete, and as a soil conditioner to improve crops. What I like about Levy is that everything we do has a foundation in recycling.
"Thailand was the seed for my interest in sustainability."Specifically in the sand and gravel mining area, we are already thinking about how we return what we mine back to the earth. It makes economic and environmental sense.”
Meanwhile, Leigh Ann found her year-long employment with the Compuware Corporation. "I work in the culture, community, and diversity department," Leigh Ann said. "Compuware was one of the first big companies to move back to Detroit during the slump when most businesses were moving out."
Leigh Ann "does a bit of everything," she said, and works with a supervisor and one colleague on outreach to the community. "It's a very exciting, meaningful engagement. Right now, for instance, we are partnering with Habitat for Humanity, and Compuware employees helped to build a house for something we call 'Project Welcome Home.' Out of about one hundred applicants, Habitat narrowed
it down to 10, and then Compuware narrowed it down to one family, a young couple with two little boys, chosen to receive the home. We don't just work with the family, though. We work with the whole community to identify and meet the needs to be a healthy community."
Both love their new jobs, and both are hoping their employment will go beyond the one-year requirement. It's not only a good job, however, that makes a good life. As part of their Challenge Detroit requirement, they had to find a place to live in the inner city. Mention safety issues, and Leigh Ann and Sam shake their heads.
"Yes, yes, I know," Leigh Ann said. "Forbes magazine once wrote that Detroit was the most dangerous city, but that's out of context. Most of the violence against women here is within relationships, people you know. I feel safe walking the streets here."
"You'll see smashed car windows in every city," Sam added. "It feels no different to me to walk the streets of Detroit than Kalamazoo. Downtown Detroit is one of the safest downtowns in the country. I definitely see Detroit as a place I would like to stay." Sam thought for a while, then added: "Detroit is big enough to matter in the world. Being here … it's part of something unfinished. I like being a part of
building it up again, and reinventing it."
The two strolled down the streets of downtown after a late afternoon meeting with Challenge Detroit fellows, discussing the challenges they were set to meet and overcome in their upcoming year while they headed toward home. They had been assigned ten such challenges, spread over the year, and the challenges included community impact, increasing food access, immigration, education, community
enterprise, health and well-being, environmental and social justice, media messaging, and arts and culture.
"You know, when I came to Detroit, I ran into another K alumnus doing interviews for a host company with Challenge Detroit, who graduated a few years earlier," Sam said. "We were talking about our years at Kalamazoo College and the alumnus stated something that seemed very true to me. ‘K people know how to think,’ he said. ‘We know how to go about solving problems—it doesn't matter what major. That's what a Kalamazoo College education leads to.’"
"This has all been a very natural journey," Leigh Ann added. "All part of a larger picture. It was Kalamazoo College that made us feel like we could conquer anything."
Photo 1 - Leigh Ann Ulrey and Sam Brennan in Detroit, where they work today.
Photo 2 - Leigh Ann and Sam as first-year students before the annual Monte Carlo event.
Photo 3 - Leigh Ann and Sam on a rainy hike in Thailand during study abroad.