College Visits: University of Detroit Mercy

Last summer, we visited Oberlin College (summary here) to whet my older son’s palate for college. At 15, he was uncertain of what he wanted to study and saw no connection to his homeschool high school education and college. College was, after all, ages away. The visit worked. College started to look appealing, and he began to see the connection between his studies today and the choices a few years away. Since then, he’s found his calling: computer science and electrical engineering. He’s also decided he doesn’t want to leave home. This narrowed scope brought us to my and his father’s alma mater, University of Detroit Mercy.

University of Detroit Mercy

Location: Detroit, Michigan

Enrollment: 5,231 (2,868 undergraduate, 1,300 graduate, 1,063 professional school)

University of Detroit Mercy was in my backyard growing up. It was the school where my mother taught and housed the Jesuit-led Catholic Mass I attended from age five on up. It was familiar and, therefore, entirely uninteresting. At my mom’s insistence, I interviewed for a scholarship on a weekend visit that convinced me I’d be happy nowhere else. The money came through, and for the next seven years (undergrad, one year of part-time postgrad, two years of professional studies in their PA program), I called UDM home.

I’d not considered it as an option for my sons, however. I figured they’d want to go away for school, and honestly I envisioned broader choices for them than I had had. But when my son centered his sights on home and engineering, I made the call. My first call is always to the disability office. With dysgraphia, ADD, and something else that remains unnamed, he needs note taking services and other supports ( see Accommodating Disability, College Style), and unless a school will provide those supports, it’s not under consideration. When that call assured me they could provide what he needed, we scheduled a visit with admissions.

University of Detroit Mercy is a Jesuit institution within the city of Detroit. Approaches via freeway reveal the plight of the city. The school itself sits on the southern end of a still-thriving set of neighborhoods on the west side, and growth is evident among the businesses just north of the school. Campus itself is entirely fenced, with every entrance guarded and gated, creating a safe atmosphere in what is admittedly, at least on three sides, not the safest of areas. The campus consists of an attractive, well-maintained collection of largely older buildings with spanish tile roofs interspersed with enough green space to provide a bit of respite from urban stone and concrete. While largely a commuter school, UDM has six residence halls housing under 1000 students, including one dorm dedicated to housing first year students.

UDM isn’t an ivy league school or elite liberal arts haven. It does have a strong engineering program committed to project-based learning from freshman year on paired with an established co-op program where engineering students work in local and national firms for quite decent pay (and college credits) starting after their first summer. Rather than an optional extra, this is integral to the engineering program, bringing students the chance to try multiple work assignments over three summers or remain in one. (The co-op program isn’t just for engineers. As an English major many years back, I co-oped three times, formative assignments that helped me choose a career path.)

UDM is a small school. My son heard “You won’t get lost here” from everyone we met, a sentiment I’d mentioned when we first discussed visiting. Class sizes are small, with an average class size of 21 students. This is crucial for a kid who could become invisible in a larger setting. UDM is a warm and welcoming school, something I was reminded of during our half day on campus. Our planned meeting with an engineering professor morphed into an impromptu trip to the electrical engineering lab, where students and faculty were hard at work preparing a robot for competition. Despite their tight schedule, the faculty took plenty of time to talk to my son and I about the lab itself, the project at hand, and the department in general. While my son was rather quiet, not sure how to do this back-and-forth, they were eager to share and engage. We went on to visit another lab where a collaborative project with a university in Texas was underway, another stop not on the schedule but eagerly offered.

While the Engineering Department wooed my son, UDM’s strong core curriculum calls to me. My son is set on an engineering and computer-oriented path. University of Detroit Mercy assures he won’t leave college with only science and math courses on his transcript. They are committed to giving every student a broad liberal arts background, with requirements in the usual English and history courses but also in philosophy, ethics, religion, and the arts. Choices abound, and a perusal through the core options brought my son reassurance that he could find plenty of interest without having to resort to literary analysis courses or some such torture (his word for that fun, not mine). I’m with Klinkenborg and Brooks: the humanities are worthy subjects of study that support our connections as human beings. UDM supports a grounding in the humanities, and that, to me, is essential for a well-rounded human being.

With a year before application time and two years before the start of college, we’re not done looking around, but University of Detroit Mercy made a strong impression on my son and on me. Sure, I’m biased. UDM gave me a strong education in a supportive, intimate environment. It was affordable as well, given their scholarships for strong students. It grounded me in Jesuit values: service, justice, equality, and scholarship, values that cross the boundaries of religion and serve me as well as a Catholic as they do as a Unitarian Universalist. I’m certain they could do the same for him.

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