This is an article from the spring 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
For Kuhu Saha (A.B. ’08), there was a lot of anxiety around what to do after college.
“When everybody asked me what I was going to do after school, I was sort of like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what I’m going to do! I guess I can do anything!’”
After graduating, Saha worked with AmeriCorps and with the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation while working with former U-M basketball captain and current Detroit pastor and entrepreneur David Merritt (Kines. A.B. ’08) to start Merit. Merit makes and sells clothing, and a whopping 20 percent of sales goes toward Give Merit, Merit’s nonprofit arm, which is dedicated to empowering Detroit high school students. Saha now serves as the executive director of Give Merit.
The program works with a select cohort — approximately 75 high school students from ninth to eleventh grade are in the current groups — for four years starting in ninth grade. The students participate in weekly workshops during the school year, practicing professional and academic skills, networking with industry insiders from across the city, and getting a sense of what a successful post-high school life and career can look like.
“Every 60 seconds in America, a student drops out of high school,” Saha says. “Merit is really committed to making sure that our students can be successful in high school and beyond.”
That means supporting students not just while they’re in the cohort, Saha says, but after they graduate and get to college, too.
“We had a 100 percent graduation rate for our first cohort of high school students,” Saha says. “First-generation students can have a hard time adjusting to college. Low-income and minority students can have a hard time adjusting. We knew these students for four years, and we knew how bright their potential was, but we didn’t fully know until they started college the variety of challenges they would face.
“We wanted to uncover how we could continue to best support these students and also how what we’re learning can inform what our high school program looks like so that we can provide the best programming possible to help all of our students be successful once they get to college.”
Hit the Ground Running
Saha worked with the LSA Opportunity Hub to place three LSA students with the organization to tackle these problems.
First, the LSA students learned everything they could about what makes first-generation students successful at college. Next, they created a series of resources including handbooks for students and skills to practice that would empower students to be prepared for the transition to college and to continue being successful once they were there.
“The project was really open ended,” Saha says, “and our LSA students just ran with it. They created documents and systems and activities that we could start implementing in our workshops right away.”
The Detroit-based Merit clothing brand donates 20 percent of its profits to college scholarships and for academic and professional development programming for a select cohort of high school students. Images courtesy of Merit
Saha says this was the most successful summer that Merit has ever had because of student internships made possible by Merit’s collaboration with the LSA Opportunity Hub. And that group of students included one who interned as part of the Applebaum Internship Program. The Eugene & Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation gave a generous donation to make the fellowship — an innovative partnership between the LSA Opportunity Hub and the foundation — possible.
The LSA Opportunity Hub works to give students the vital connections, coaching, and support they need to connect their academic interests to their professional aspirations. The Applebaum Internship Program provides financial support for a cohort of students interning at nonprofit and cultural organizations throughout Detroit, at organizations such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Motown Museum, Detroit Public Theatre, and elsewhere. The program broadens students’ perspectives on how to engage in Detroit in a meaningful way, by enlisting alumni and area leaders to mentor, network, and speak with students about important issues facing the city.
For Saha, she says that hosting interns provided incredible value to Merit — value that persists even after the students are back on campus.
“All of us here, we’ve all had internships that sucked,” Saha says with a laugh. “We’ve all had internships where we did nothing but meaningless work. And we were all committed to making sure that every LSA student got the absolute most out of their experience with us.
“We made sure that they got to participate in workshops, and we brought in people doing nonprofit work across Detroit so that students could see how much work it is — and it’s really a lot of work — but also how much energy there is around these kinds of impact-based organizations. And I think students really got that.
“Last summer was so great because everyone felt like they were contributing and that their contributions weren’t going to be stashed away in a box somewhere,” Saha says. “What they did is making a difference right now, and they know that.”
City of the Future
The Applebaum Internship Program at the LSA Opportunity Hub connects LSA students to many of Detroit’s most enduring cultural institutions and innovative nonprofit organizations. The fellowship also provides a series of events that gives the Applebaum fellows an insider’s understanding of various facets of the city, from local government to philanthropy.
The Eugene & Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation made the program possible through a generous gift that will power the program this year and beyond. Through it, the foundation hopes to inspire the next generation of city leaders, innovators, and cultural stewards.
“We’re so excited to be launching the second cohort of the Applebaum Program,” says Pamela Applebaum, president of the foundation. “My family has long been devoted to enriching our community, and the Applebaum Internship Program at the University of Michigan links the passion of our family to motivate the talents of the next generation with the opportunity to appreciate the value and importance of being professional leaders at these organizations and institutions.”