When Emilie Lewis signed up for her First-Year Experience class before this fall semester, it accomplished a very specific need.
"It was the class that fit my schedule," said Lewis about the course titled So You Want to Change the World.
In the months that followed, her view of the class and of the world itself expanded greatly. She and her classmates discussed homelessness, racism, classism, and food equity issues. They read the university's Common Read book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. And they took their knowledge off campus, holding class at sites such as For-Mar Nature Preserve & Arboretum, and the Genesee County Jail.
"The class is a lot deeper than I thought it was going to be. It opened me up to a lot of different perspectives," said Lewis, who is a pre-med student. "Empathy is a really big thing that people need to have."
The class, which spent the early weeks of the semester learning about campus resources such as the library and writing center, increasingly studied social justice issues as the semester progressed. The course is designed to acclimate students to university life and to introduce them to new ways of learning and doing.
The final class included volunteering at the Center for Hope in Flint, which offers a series of services for those in need, including food, toiletries, shelter, and more.
Students filled "blessing bags" of food for more than 100 individuals who utilized the shelter, said class instructor Nancy Grigg.
The visit was designed to combine a personal experience with their critical thinking skills about larger systematic societal issues they have developed throughout the semester.
"While students felt positively about spending time at the center, my main goal was for students to see and experience the lack of access to basic resources that many visiting the center experience every day," Grigg said. "As a class we discussed how they can become agents for positive change in the Flint community — and as a UM-Flint student, they are an important part of this community."
Syed Kamal said the class was a "breath of fresh air", as each student was empowered to contribute based on their own experiences and opinions. The challenge of how to express themselves in class was up to them. Students were free to draw, write, and perform as ways to participate and reflect. Kamal said the class was not just about theories from the past, but about learning in the moment.
"It is our world as it is now," he said about the immediacy and relevancy of the class.
Grigg said each class she leads, she learns countless new things from the life experiences of the students involved and their attitudes about those experiences. They taught her about the support of friends, and not trying to take on everything by oneself.
"Several students reminded me that positive energy and a sense of humor is important not only in college studies, but in life," Grigg said. "We had a lot of laughs in this class throughout the semester, and while sometimes I made the class giggle, they also made me laugh and remember not to take myself so seriously."
Throughout the semester, several students said Grigg's open and encouraging attitude freed them up to look beyond their grades and to think about the bigger picture.
To Lewis, the class that once just fit her schedule made her think about what it truly meant to change the world. And that lesson, she said, will stay with her long after the semester is over.
"Changing the world is one step at a time."