A few months after Abhishek Y. Utekar left Mumbai, India, to start an MBA program at the University of Michigan campus in Flint, his landlord gave him a driving tour of his new home. Dennis Brownfield watched out for his tenants, and he wanted Utekar to understand the dynamics of a city often defined by deindustrialization and decay. His car provided the first lesson. It was a Honda Civic with a license plate that read "GM LEFT," a commentary on the 70,000 automotive jobs that have disappeared over the years in this birthplace of General Motors Co.
They rolled to a stop in the empty parking lot between the main library and Central High School, an imposing brick building, shuttered because of falling enrollment and budget cuts. "Now make sure you've got your seat belt on because I'm going to show you an American custom," Brownfield said. He shifted into reverse, cranked the steering wheel hard to the right, gunned the engine and popped the clutch. The result was a dizzying, deftly executed series of backward 360s. For a final flourish, Brownfield yanked the emergency brake to abruptly change directions.
"That's called a doughnut," he said when they had skidded to a stop. "It's how we have fun in Michigan."
Rattled but impressed, Utekar realized: This was going to be a lot different from India.
Culture shock is not unusual among international students pursuing degrees in the United States, but some places are more shocking than others. Flint, 60 miles northwest of Detroit, is perennially ranked one of the most dangerous cities in the country. It has lost half its residents since the 1960s, according to the Census Bureau, and the population recently dipped below 100,000 for the first time in nearly a century. Thousands of homes are abandoned - often stripped bare by thieves in search of scrap metal - and arson is commonplace, infusing some neighborhoods with an eerie sense of desolation. In October, the county health department declared a public health emergency after elevated lead levels were discovered in the city's water supply.
It is not, to state the obvious, a fun-loving college town like Ann Arbor. And yet, they come. This year, more than 700 international students, the largest number ever, are studying at UM-Flint, a commuter school of some 8,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Nearly 200 more attend Kettering, a smaller, more selective private university with a focus on automotive engineering.
The numbers may seem comparatively modest, but this is a place people leave. These students - from Saudi Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Nigeria and more than 40 other countries - had hundreds of choices, and they chose Flint.
The question, of course, is why.
Some reasons are practical. Both universities offer degrees in fields popular with international students - engineering, business, computer science and health care. Tuition at UM-Flint is inexpensive compared to private universities, and the cost of living is low; a two-bedroom apartment near downtown rents for about $500 a month, utilities included. The universities actively recruit overseas and have forgiving admissions policies for foreign applicants (no SAT or ACT required). With international enrollment climbing nationwide for nearly a decade, to almost 886,000, it is perhaps inevitable that students find their way to cities like Flint.
Conversations with some three dozen international students at UM-Flint and Kettering reveal another explanation. A coveted degree from the United States was their primary goal; where they attained it was far less important. Many found their way to Vehicle City by accident. Some had hopes of immigrating.
Once here, they grumble about being homesick and about a strange, meteorological term called wind chill factor. Joshua O.
Anifowoshe, a Nigerian, would sometimes join in dorm-room griping with other international students who were disappointed in UM-Flint.
Anifowoshe had wanted a smaller school, but after attending a boisterous football game in Ann Arbor with more than 100,000 fans, he started to waver, and transferred. "It was kind of lonely and boring in Flint," he said. "I realized I needed a more rigorous academic environment and a more lively campus."
But the majority of international students stick it out - 57 percent earn degrees in four years and 86 percent in five years, according to UM-Flint (impressive, considering that only 11 percent and 28 percent of all full-time freshmen there accomplish the same). In the process, the students said, they developed a deeper, more cleareyed understanding of the real America and experienced an unanticipated sense of community.
Utekar's story illustrates the leap of faith many international students take. He was working in sales for a Mumbai pharmaceutical company when he decided to try to immigrate to the United States.
His sister had married an American and become a citizen while working for Wells Fargo on an H-1B visa after attending graduate school at Ithaca College. Utekar began researching MBA programs.
He considered the University of Michigan's highly ranked Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, but couldn't afford it. Back then, in 2010, Flint would cost him just $10,000 a year - $40,000 less than Ross. He checked a map, and the two campuses were just an hour's drive apart. How different could they be?
"I did not look up anything about Flint, which was good because I wasn't judgmental and paranoid when I got here," he said. Besides, he had missed the application deadlines for his other choices.
Residents seemed surprised and grateful when they learned someone had traveled such a great distance to study in Flint, Utekar said. He rented a room in a group house for $200 from Brownfield and stood in line once a week for free groceries at a nearby church. He discovered McDonald's and Wendy's. A friend in India sent him incense sticks and ink drawings of Krishna on dried palm leaves that he sold at art fairs. A music student lent him a pair of Indian tabla drums, and he was soon playing with various bands in the area. He began dating an American woman.
After completing his MBA in 2013, Utekar had a job with a local software firm for a year on his F1 student visa. International students and recent international graduates in the United States can work or intern for 12 to 29 months under the Optional Practical Training program in jobs related to their area of study. Roughly half of UM-Flint's internatinal students who graduate take advantage of OPT, but how many succeed in permanently immigrating - there is still a 7 percent cap-per-country on green cards - is not known.
Utekar's visa was still valid when his job ended, so he enrolled in the master's program in computer science, which he expects to complete next fall. Now 33, he does not want to leave the United States. He and his girlfriend recently bought a 1,344-square-foot house for $9,800 and have begun restoring it. "Maybe I was just lucky, but I've met amazing people in Flint," he said. "I like it here."
That's what Flint officials like to hear. In the past decade, they have worked to make the city more appealing to students. A one-mile stretch that connects the University of Michigan campus and Kettering has been landscaped and rechristened University Avenue. The former Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown was converted into student housing. Last year, the popular farmers' market relocated to the edge of the UM campus, a fortresslike collection of interconnected brick buildings constructed in the '70s. A newer classroom building occupies the former site of the AutoWorld theme park, a short-lived attempt to lure tourists that was leveled in 1997.
Abandoned buildings are still easy to spot. But a handful of new bars and restaurants have given students more to do, and Susan E. Borrego, chancellor of UM-Flint, has been talking to local leaders about sponsoring a cricket tournament.
For merchants, the students provide an economic boost in a city saddled with double-digit unemployment. The international student in Flint spends on average almost $30,000 a year to cover tuition, fees and living expenses, according to the Association of International Educators. And that translates to more than $25 million annually for the local economy.
So it's no wonder that six UM-Flint staff members regularly travel the world to recruit students. Dan Adams, director of its international center, frequently finds himself in Dubai or Singapore fielding questions from a parent or two whose Google search turned up distressing news about Flint. "I only have about 60 seconds of their attention to try and sell the school," he said, "so I emphasize all the support services we offer, the small class sizes, and point out that downtown Flint is a safe area."
Kip Darcy, vice president for marketing, communications and enrollment at Kettering, takes a focused approach to recruiting engineering students. "We concentrate on India and China because they are a huge market for students hoping to study in the U.S., and they also have nascent automotive industries."
Kettering began working last fall in China with an independent broker, who assists students with the application process. UM-Flint contracts with approximately 20 brokers in various countries. In addition to collecting fees from students, the agents are paid $1,000 for each student they deliver who enrolls for at least two semesters. It's a practice the National Association for College Admissions Counseling permits in the recruitment of international students. But it does not endorse it, according to Eddie West, director of the association's international initiatives, and member schools cannot pay commissions for placement of domestic students.
Brokers can have a huge influence, steering students toward specific schools, whether a good fit or not. Neelam Gire, a soft-spoken 24-year-old, desperately needed direction. She had hoped to attend medical school in India, but froze when it came time to take the demanding entrance exam, which is given after high school.
"I was sitting in the car with my mom, watching people go into the building to take the test," she remembered. "I told her I just couldn't do it, and we left. It was a big relief to drive away."
Her mother encouraged her to study in the United States and, for $500, hired a broker to suggest schools, help her with applications and prep her for her visa interview. UM-Flint was the first to accept her. She had never heard of Michigan, let alone Flint, but she thought the other options - the State University of New York and Fairleigh Dickinson University - were too close to her former boyfriend, who attended a community college in New Jersey. What if she bumped into him?
She checked into her dorm on a Sunday. She was struck by the emptiness of the campus and downtown. "I was shocked that there were no tall buildings," she said. "It looked like a village. I had a brochure that showed people sitting on the grass and chatting, and I was wondering, 'Where are they?'"
When a fellow student from India gave Gire a tour of Flint to help her acclimate, he presented an array of personal safety tips. Don't walk alone after dark. Stay alert so no one can sneak up on you.
Never wear high heels because assailants can hear the click of your shoes on the pavement, and it's hard to run away.
While Gire dealt with acute anxiety, her mother, a single parent, struggled to pay her college expenses. In tearful Skype conversations, her two younger sisters complained that the family was suffering financially because of her. "They thought I was in some beautiful place and enjoying life, but it was hard for me to even go outside because I thought it was unsafe," she said.
Gire reluctantly moved off-campus into a studio apartment to save money, further isolating herself. She spent entire days playing video games and eating. She gained 10 pounds and dropped out for a semester, holed up in her apartment. Returning home would be shameful.
Slowly, she got used to living away from her family. The university hired Gire as an "international ambassador," bolstering her confidence and enabling her to make new friends. The eight ambassadors correspond with prospective applicants from other countries, welcome newcomers and plan events.
Because it's the international students who live on or near campus, they have an outsize impact on life at UM-Flint. In fact, the 2014-15 student government president was from Mauritius, an island off the southeast coast of Africa.
Gire got involved with the Indian Student Association and helped organize a celebration last fall to mark Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. At a school where almost half the students are part-time and 50 is considered a big turnout, more than 400, including a group of exchange students from Mexico and dozens of American students, squeezed into four rooms in the student center. There was food, a disc jockey and dancing, both traditional and not so traditional. Fines were levied for overcrowding.
"No one wanted to leave," Gire said. "They just wanted to keep dancing."
Gire now lives with her Canadian boyfriend in East Village, a 16-block neighborhood near downtown that is popular with international students. They want to stay in the United States. After graduating in June with a psychology degree, Gire got a job, under the OPT program, in the university's international admissions office. She intends on enrolling in a master's program in public administration in about a year, with the career goal of working in higher education with international students.
"I used to hate it here," she said. "But now it feels like home."
A mile south of UM-Flint, Kettering is a block from the former site of Chevy in the Hole, the hulking factory complex where the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1936-37 catapulted the United Auto Workers union into national prominence. Formerly known as General Motors Institute, Kettering continues to have strong ties with the auto industry. Its undergraduates - nearly 1,800 of them - participate in a co-op program that alternates academic studies with paid, full-time employment with corporations, frequently one of the Big Three automakers or their suppliers.
One Friday night last semester, the International Club at Kettering met at Extreme Indoor Kart Racing in a lonely shopping center, where a handful of customers were playing arcade games or racing under fluorescent lights on a quarter-mile track outlined with old tires. There was a good turnout: 40 students representing Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Brazil along with a few Americans.
Locksly Wallace, an effervescent Jamaican with a quick smile, doled out tickets, and a few students put on their crash helmets, prompting a furious round of selfies. About a dozen men in the automotive systems program gathered at a viewing window, eagerly awaiting their turn and critiquing another group navigating the track. An animated discussion on cornering technique ensued.
"We are really car freaks," one explained.
The students stayed for three hours and enthusiastically ate pizza in the otherwise empty parking lot before carpooling back to campus.
Wallace reported that the night took $600 from the International Club budget and injected it directly into the local economy. Money well spent, in his opinion.
Typical of Kettering students, Wallace took an intentional route to Flint. He had tested into a high school for students with academic potential and was selected to participate in an intensive, five-week pro-college program at Kettering aimed at low-income students of color. Once again, he stood out, earning a scholarship to study chemical engineering.
Wallace, whose mother worked as a maid and seamstress to support the family, grew up with seven siblings in Central Village, Jamaica, a rough area between Kingston and Spanish Town, characterized by poverty and violence. He admitted that his expectations of life in the United States were formed largely by Hollywood, and like many international students he thought that all of America was prosperous. When he arrived, he discovered a city that had similarities with Central Village. "It turned out that Flint is pretty much what I'm used to, so I can relate to it," he said. "The only shock was realizing that, 'Oh, this happens in America, too.' "
Students describe the Kettering campus, comprising just seven buildings near downtown, as an island isolated from the city's more crime-ridden neighborhoods. There's a police substation across the street from the university, and Kettering's website describes a "state-of-the art security and high definition closed-circuit television surveillance system" installed in 2013.
But Wallace didn't retreat from the rest of the city. He joined a mentoring program that connects Kettering students with academically promising high school students. He met regularly with three boys, prepping them for college, taking them to art museums and offering them advice on girlfriends and other mysteries of adolescence.
"I had friends back home who dropped out of high school and ended up on the corner smoking weed," Wallace said. "Some of them were dead before they were 18. So I could empathize and offer good solutions for what they were going through."
The young men he befriended had a sense of hopelessness. "The common theme that I heard was: 'I can't wait to get out of here,'" Wallace said. "Flint really has nothing to offer kids with potential. They're going to leave."
Wallace earned his master's in engineering management in June and works as a project manager at an automotive supplier. He hopes to land a job in the renewable energy field in California and, eventually, return to Jamaica.
He is rooting for better times in Flint, but he has no intention of staying. "The engineer in me loves problem solving," he said, "but I've done my time."