Road Scholars Tour connects U-M faculty with Michigan communities 

The University of Michigan is committed to bringing the expertise of its faculty to communities throughout the state to impact positive change and enhance the public good. Cultivating connections increases scholars’ understanding of the challenges and concerns of Michigan residents, and broadens the community’s knowledge of the impact the university has on the state. Through the Michigan Road Scholars tour, a five-day traveling seminar across Michigan, faculty learn about different issues by visiting a variety of locations and interacting with a wide array of people. 

This unique experience gives scholars a glimpse into the places many students call home, enhancing ties between U-M and communities across the state and suggesting ways that faculty can continue to engage with the public. The 2023 tour took place from May 1-5, with 32 faculty participants from a range of disciplines. Cities visited included Detroit, Lansing, Ionia, Traverse City, Suttons Bay, St. Ignace, Alpena and Bay City. 

The importance of bringing individuals from diverse disciplines together as a team cannot be overstated, especially when the common denominator is problems the state of Michigan faces. Being able to connect and network with others is not only beneficial for early faculty, but also senior faculty for mentorship opportunities and research collaboration,” said Ben Ayotte, M.D., clinical assistant professor at University of Michigan Health. 

Ayotte added that the experience helped him gain a deeper appreciation for the role of Michigan Medicine as part of the greater university and opened numerous new doors for research collaboration that could improve the health and lives of Michiganders. 

“This trip taught me so much about Michigan that I didn’t know, from our natural resources to our people, from their successes, passions to challenges. This is important not just for our work, but also for how we think about our role as faculty and researchers, and how our university should work with the communities and the people in the state. For me this trip is truly an eye-opener,” said Jing Liu, Ph.D., executive director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science and co-director of the Eric and Wendy Schmidt AI in Science Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. 

Devon Powers, Ph.D., professor of communication and media in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, described the tour as an unforgettable “whirlwind trip” across the state.

“I was educated, entertained, challenged and enlightened. At times, this trip pushed me out of my comfort zones, in a good way. I met a community of tremendous faculty and staff who demonstrated the depths of creativity and intelligence within our institution,” Powers said. “As a new faculty member, it was an invaluable opportunity to meet new people and learn about Michigan. My favorite stop was the Ancient Tree Archive in Copemish, which is doing truly inspiring work to combat climate change.” 

Participants had distinctive reflections and different favorite experiences. Assistant professor of law at Michigan Law Noah Kazis found the visit to the Daimler Detroit Diesel plant to be especially impactful. “It brought to life Michigan’s most iconic industry and displayed the immense extent of technical and business expertise that goes into a modern automotive facility. The layers of how much know-how is needed at every step of the process is remarkable. I’ll be thinking about that — and both the challenges and opportunities facing Michigan’s unique industrial sector — for a long time to come.”

Soumya Rangarajan, M.D., clinical assistant professor at Michigan Medicine, said that as a geriatrician, she thoroughly enjoyed the stop at the Traverse City Comedy Club to visit with leaders of the Old Town Playhouse and take in a performance by a group of older adult actors. “I often get questioned about whether I find my medical specialty ‘depressing.’ I always point out that it is quite the opposite. Seeing these actors, ranging in age from 60s to 90s, having fun with irreverent and perhaps bawdy humor, provided a great chance to see older adults live their joyful, fulfilling lives outside the medical setting, where we often see them only on their worst days.” 

Many faculty members noted that conversations with leaders of Michigan tribal communities, discussions about the housing crisis and resources needed for the incarcerated population were particularly profound. 

Michigan Medicine patients come from across Michigan, and Ayotte said he now has more insight into some of the different  perspectives and challenges vis a vis health care access and delivery. “Seeing and experiencing some of these communities as part of Road Scholars will enable me to better understand what types of support, services and other benefits available for patients outside of Ann Arbor — such as to provide them with personalized and highest quality care.”

“The five-day tour significantly impacted my understanding of the state, and how I can more effectively interact with communities — both in my university position and personally,” said Stephanie Chardoul, director of survey research operations at the Survey Research Center in the Institute for Social Research. “I was deeply impressed with and inspired by the people we met. Our state is full of passionate leaders and doers who are committed to making it a better, stronger and more sustainable place. I also appreciated the opportunity to meet and build strong relationships with my Road Scholar colleagues — we are an interesting and diverse group! These opportunities are rare and I am grateful that I was selected to have a seat on this bus.” 

Three people in a facility with plants growing in Michigan.

Sandy Goel, Pharm. D., interim chief wellness officer & administrative director at the Michigan Medicine Wellness Office, reflected on the opportunity to represent U-M on the tour and talk with so many inspiring people. “We met so many people stewarding important work from daily living to public policy, supporting equity and opportunity across Michigan. They were brilliant, innovative, sincere, passionate, forward-thinking problem solvers with clear purposes from rural health care, education, economic development and affordable housing to environmental sustainability. I am proud to call Michigan HOME(S).”

Rangarajan added: “The Road Scholars program was [also] an incredible opportunity for me to get to meet colleagues from diverse areas, from business and law to writing and the performing arts, and even other Michigan Medicine faculty who are more on the research side and I had never engaged with previously. 

“Through learning about the policy, economics and culture of our state, and our role as a university in shaping these issues, we also were given the opportunity to be introspective and learn more about ourselves and each other,” Rangarajan said. 

Yatesha Robinson, PhD, field faculty and LEO lecturer in the School of Social Work, said that the Road Scholars tour can be quite life changing. “Many of my colleagues on the trip wished they had participated earlier in their career as the information we learn can guide our research, teaching, and practice.”

The trip was a great opportunity to expand horizons and truly understand the diversity, strengths, and perspectives of Michigan residents from all across the state, said Paul Chandanabhumma, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine.

“Working in academic spaces, we are often challenged by the need to make our research and scholarship more accessible and reciprocal to community members. Taking part in the Road Scholar Tour reminds me to seek opportunities to be out there, engage in active listening and mutual dialogue, and develop genuine human connections,” Chandanabhumma said. “I will be attentive to how I could infuse the perspectives, voices, and needs that I hear from the tribal natural resource leader, rural health practitioners, and hotel employee into the health equity work that I do in an accountable way.”

By Erica Colaianne

Learn more about the Road Scholars Tour, which is funded by the Office of the Provost and administered by the Office of the Vice President for Government Relations State Outreach Office.