Illustration of Pontiac City Hall with OU students and grizz bear cheering outside. People planting trees to the right and bus and cyclist in the foreground.

Around Campus|

Community Engagement

icon of a calendarDecember 18, 2018

icon of a pencilBy Patrick Dunn

OU-Pontiac Initiative

The OU-Pontiac Initiative continues to make a difference in the community and on campus

two white arrows point down
white camera icon

Kevin Fales

Anyone involved in the OU Pontiac Initiative will tell you that the relationship between OU and the city of Pontiac is truly a two-way street. Having weathered a bankruptcy, emergency management, and major budget and staffing cuts in the early 2010s, it’s easy to see needs in Pontiac that an institution like OU might be able to assist with. But OU and its students also have a variety of needs that Pontiac can help to fill, including service learning projects and opportunities for students to apply classroom learning to real-world situations.

Since its inception in 2014, the OU Pontiac Initiative has endeavored to address both entities’ needs through numerous programs. Those programs cover six key focus areas: education, civic engagement/government, workforce and economic development, health and wellness, arts, and capacity building for neighborhoods and nonprofits. The starting point for the initiative was a series of town hall meetings that engaged over 150 representatives from both OU and the Pontiac community. Teresa Rodges, OU’s coordinator for community service partnerships, says paying close attention to the Pontiac community has been key to the initiative. “It’s one thing for OU to go out and provide a ton of projects that they think the city needs,” she says. “I think what is important is for OU to come together with the city and listen to what they need.” Oakland County commissioner David Bowman, a lead for the OU Pontiac Initiative’s health and wellness pillar, says he’s been impressed with the way OU has approached Pontiac. “There’s a real compassion for the community,” Bowman says. “There’s a real desire to maintain that cohesive partnership. There is a willingness to make sure that the partnership remains strong.”

The initiative’s civic engagement/government focus area has gotten OU students engaged in the workings of Pontiac’s government itself. Perhaps most notably, while the city was struggling with budget cuts, OU political science and journalism students were placed as interns in Pontiac mayor Deirdre Waterman’s office. Students worked on projects ranging from creating a quarterly city newsletter to updating the city website, and had the opportunity to shadow Waterman in the process. Students have also interned in Pontiac’s judicial branch, working in the 50th District Court under judge Cynthia Walker. “There was a void,” Bowman says. “And through the education department at OU, there was an opportunity to work collaboratively to fill some of those gaps.” Students at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine have also engaged in the Pontiac community through a variety of projects on the annual Make a Difference Day, a national day of community service. Students have volunteered in Pontiac community organizations including Hope Warming Center and Gleaners Community Food Bank.

“The power of volunteerism has been profound,” Bowman says. Going forward, Bowman says he hopes to re-engage OU’s internship program at Pontiac City Hall, establishing a group of interns to support and shadow Waterman and another group to work with Pontiac City Council. Bowman expresses appreciation for the OU Pontiac Initiative’s “staying power.”

“Often, within the city of Pontiac, there’s an influx of resources through grants or studies or the goodness of others providing supportive services to communities in need,” he says.

“Sometimes there is the knowledge that at the end of that timeframe those resources are going to dissipate. But I’ve been impressed with the fact that [the OU Pontiac Initiative has] remained.”

The initiative’s health and wellness focus area has had some very direct impacts on the city of Pontiac, literally shaping the roads and sidewalks that residents drive, and walk on daily. In 2014 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded OU a $650,000 Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grant to fund projects in Pontiac. Jennifer Lucarelli has led many of those projects as the OU Pontiac Initiative’s health and wellness lead and associate professor and chair of interdisciplinary health sciences at OU. One of the REACH grant’s biggest outcomes so far has been the creation of a non-motorized transportation plan for the city of Pontiac, developed in collaboration between OU and the city. Lucarelli says the plan re-envisions the city to be more walkable and bikeable – an issue that’s particularly relevant because one-third of Pontiac residents don’t have access to a car. The plan was formally adopted in 2017, and had its first tangible results when the city’s first mile of bike lane was installed late the same year. Lucarelli recalls going out to take pictures of the new bike lane while the road it was on was still closed to vehicle traffic. “There were all sorts of construction cones, but there was a guy out there riding his bike in the bike lane,” she says. “It was one of those moments where it was like, ‘Aha! This was really needed. There’s already people using it.’

REACH grant-funded health and wellness initiatives in Pontiac have also provided valuable real-world experience for OU students, as in the case of the annual Sidewalk Audit program. OU students conduct yearly surveys of Pontiac’s sidewalks, ranking their quality on 10 different metrics and then submitting a list that the city can use to prioritize which sidewalks most need repair. Lucarelli says such projects are “a lot more meaningful” to students than working out of a book in a classroom, and they help to create “sustainable change” for Pontiac residents. “We’re not doing a favor for the Pontiac community,” Lucarelli says. “They’re not doing a favor for us. We are working together.”

The OU Pontiac Initiative’s education focus area has spawned projects that have benefited not only Pontiac School District (PSD) students and OU students, but their parents as well. Parent University, a joint project of PSD and OU, offers a variety of programming to help parents become better advocates for their children’s education. Free courses for parents focus on health and wellness, navigating the education system, effective parenting, and personal growth and development. “When you eliminate barriers for the parents, you also eliminate barriers for our students,” Rodges says.

Through the OU Pontiac Initiative, major barriers have also been eliminated for Pontiac High School students who wish to get an early start on a medical career. Students may participate in a yearlong patient care technician (PCT) training program taught by OU instructors, completing their clinicals at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland and receiving their PCT certification upon graduation. From there, students may work as PCTs at St. Joseph’s or continue on to nursing school.  Three cohorts of students have now completed the PCT program, which has an average graduation rate of 93 percent. Kelley Williams, PSD superintendent and education lead for the OU Pontiac Initiative, says the program has also helped give students a tangible goal to work towards. Every PCT program participant has seen significant GPA increases after starting the program.

“Just to see those students walking around with their uniforms and knowing the direction they want to go in life was very beneficial,” Williams says. “They were smiling, I’m smiling, and when they graduate from the program their parents are so happy.” Williams says she’s noticed “a huge increase” in PSD graduates attending OU since the OU Pontiac Initiative began. She also describes a major change in Pontiac residents’ overall perception of OU. She says that where residents once saw a university “right in our backyards” but didn’t know how to approach or access it, they now see a wealth of opportunities for their community. “They now feel that OU is a partner, not only with the district but with the municipality,” Williams says. “The parents now feel that if they need some additional resource, Oakland University can provide that for their graduating students that walk across the stage.

Share this story