Flint high school students glimpse college life with 23Express

January 16, 2024

Michael Williams describes himself as a “closeted nerd.” Growing up in Flint, Michigan, he felt like he had to disguise his love of learning in order to blend in with his peers. “It wasn’t ‘cool’ to like school,” he explains. “You could be smart, but you couldn’t be a nerd.” In adulthood, he started looking for ways to share his love of learning with college-bound high school students in his hometown. 

Currently, Williams is the Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, but the bulk of his 11-year tenure working for the University was spent at the School of Information. It was there that the idea for 23Express, an homage to the highway connecting Flint to Ann Arbor, was born. Inspired by the Center for Educational Outreach’s program Wolverine Express, a high school visitation program that involves a team of U-M faculty, staff, and students traveling to high schools across Michigan to promote college access, readiness, and success (and a program Williams himself participated in as an undergrad), he began reaching out to U-M Flint and various Flint community colleges to see if they had similar programs. “They didn’t offer anything like this,” he said. “I was like wow, this is crazy. They’re right here and not welcoming their local students for a college tour.” 

After chatting with Christal Drew, his sister, and principal of Madison Academy in Flint, they decided to put things into motion. “When we were kids, I was a part of a program where we’d visit Eastern Michigan and stay for four days to learn about college classes, and different career paths, and connect with kids from all over the state. It was great.” Williams explains. “I wanted to come up with a program where we can reward students who want to go to college, who care about their future, who are working hard.” Williams worked with then-director of the Center for Educational Outreach, Dr. William (Nick) Collins, and was able to secure the program’s initial funding in 2016.

Partnering with his sister’s school, Madison Academy, 23Express annually brings 35-40 Flint high school students to U-M’s campus for an immersive day-long experience. The itinerary includes a student panel, a campus scavenger hunt, lunch in South Quad’s dining hall, and a surprise tour of the football stadium where the students view the press boxes and locker room. “I tell them there are some people who would give their left hand to see this, not everyone gets to go on this tour,” he laughs. “The students love it, especially the Michael Jordan suite.” 

Mara Ostfeld, research director at the Center for Racial Justice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, helped 23Express secure additional funding last year and provided logistical support for the tour in November. “The program is important because it helps young people expand the futures they imagine for themselves,” Ostfeld said. “ We only consider paths we know about, and given the existing structural disparities, youth in Flint do not have equitable access to the tools and opportunities available to other Michigan youth.” 

The day ends with a trip to the MDEN (another student highlight, Williams adds) and a debrief of the experience. “I ask them, what did you like? What did you see? How does it make you feel to be here?” In 2020, Williams’s sister put together a graduation video featuring six students from the first 23Express cohort. The students shared that visiting U-M was a highlight of their high school experience and had helped them see college not only as something they could do but wanted to do. “It’s the little things here and there that make a difference. I get to be a touch point for these students, that’s what I do it for.”

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Headshot of Mara Ostfeld

Mara Ostfeld

Research Director, Center for Racial Justice; Associate Research Scientist, Ford School; Faculty Associate, Center for Political Studies; Faculty Associate, Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy

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