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Sep. 6, 2016

Tell me a story: Changing student perceptions about Flint

Sept. 7, 2016

Marc Hunsaker, a doctoral student in MSU’s Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education Program, is a program manager and student services assistant in the MSU Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement.

Christie Schichtel, LMSW, is an academic specialist in the MSU Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement.

MSU students were offered several new opportunities to participate in “Will Power. A Global Day of Service,” including two new service sites in Flint. As a result, more than 40 Spartans signed up to serve with one of these Flint sites, which focused on beautification efforts including blight removal and a spring clean-up for Edible Flint at the MSU Extension Demonstration Garden.

Before launching into their service in the Flint community, students attended a special orientation event at the Jackson Zone. During this event, students engaged in a preflection activity about the city of Flint. Preflection is a quality practice in community engagement where students reflect on their preconceptions of the community and people with whom they will interact (Springer & Casey, 2010). Taking time to do such an activity is critical for preparing students to think about their own biases that may affect their experience and to explore gaps in their own understanding (Eyler, 2002).

Taking a creative approach, students participated in preflection through the six-word story method, a strategy of storytelling and reflection where only six words can be used to tell a story. After students wrote their stories, we brought in several speakers from Flint, including MSU professor Rick Sadler and Terry McConnell from MSU Extension. From these speakers, students learned more about Flint’s history, the implications of the water crisis, and ongoing community initiatives. The next day, these students traveled to Flint, volunteered in one of the beautification projects described above, and ended their day with a visit to the Flint Farmers’ Market. On the return trip to East Lansing, we asked students to reflect on their experiences and write another six-word story about Flint.

We compiled and analyzed students’ pre and post six-word stories about Flint. We have found that after engaging with the Flint community, students’ stories reflected the three themes outlined below.

1. Students’ pre-service perceptions of Flint were often negative, while their post-service perceptions were more positively oriented.

Many pre-service six-word stories focused on Flint’s struggles and liabilities.

Pre-service perceptions – Prior to their engagement with the community, students’ stories of Flint were primarily negative:  42 percent of stories focused on Flint’s liabilities, including the recent water crisis, other injustices, and a past history of disinvestment (e.g. “A city drowning with no water”,  “Auto industry gone, environmental racism prevails”, and “Fighting a Battle. Every. Single. Day.”). Out of the 40 stories, 37.5 percent referenced the water crisis (e.g., “Flint, Michigan: Bring a Water Bottle” and “Why Can’t I Drink the Water Mom?”).

Post-service six-word stories were markedly more positive about the Flint community.

Post-service perceptions – The tone of students’ stories changed markedly after
their community engagement. Whereas 27.5 percent of stories represented a positive perspective of Flint beforehand, student responses afterward were primarily positive (65%). Perhaps more importantly, none of the responses focused solely on Flint’s liabilities (e.g.,“Filled by community, nourished by passion”, “Hard-working people in Flint rock”, and “Lively nature. Nice people. Tasty Food”). In fact, of the 26 post-reflection responses, only 2 mentioned the water crisis at all, and both did so in a manner that was primarily hopeful (e.g., “Flint will defeat the pollution problem”) and represented a more holistic perspective of Flint as a community (e.g., “Flint – more than a water crisis.”).

2. Several student stories focused on how their service experiences both challenged their negative misconceptions and gave them a more balanced perspective on the city.

Post-service six-word stories challenged common conceptions about the Flint community.

Some students specifically described how their engagement with the community challenged common negative misconceptions about Flint (e.g., “Flint – it’s not what you hear”, and “Many misconceptions, see it for yourself”) while other stories reflected a more balanced perspective of Flint by pairing Flint’s struggles with a more positive prediction of the city’s future (e.g., “Prominent past. Troubled today. Fearless future”, “Bumps in the road. Will THRIVE.”, and “A tough battle, a stronger community”).

3. Students’ post-service reflections indicated an identification with and personal connection to Flint.

After serving in Flint, nearly 31 percent of students used the word “we” in their stories or made specific mention of “community” (e.g. “From the ground up, we rebuild”,  “Building itself back up through community”, and “Vibrant city. Strong community. Great future.”).  One story even united the Spartan identity with Flint’s (e.g., “New Life. Go Green. Go Flint.”)

We extend much appreciation and gratitude to our partners who created this opportunity for students to engage with the Flint community: Thank you to Associated Students of Michigan State University, MSU Outreach and Engagement, MSU Student Affairs & Services, and Jackson National Life for your generous donations! Thank you to Rick Sadler, Terry McLean, Danielle Robinson, MSU Extension’s Edible Flint, Keep Genesee County Beautiful, the City of Flint, Michigan Community Service Commission, United Way of Genesee County, and the Spartans Will. A Global Day of Service committee for your hard work. We look forward to growing Spartan engagement with the Flint community!


Eyler, J. (2002). Reflection: Linking service and learning- linking students and communities. Journal of Social Issues, 58(3), 517-534.

Springer, N.C., & Casey, K.M. (2010). From Preflection to Reflection: Building Quality Practices in Academic Service-Learning. In H.E. Fitzgerald, C. Burack, & S. Seifer (Eds.): Handbook of Engaged Scholarship: Contemporary Landscapes, Future Directions. Vol.2: CommunityCampus Partnerships (pp 29-49). East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Reprinted with permission from the MSU Center for Service Learning & Civic Engagement.