Losing Ignition

Losing Ignition

Nation Writing Contest Winner: Students and workers pay the price in the decline of Detroit’s automobile industry.


We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation‘s fifth annual Student Writing Contest.
This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how their education has been compromised by budget cuts and tuition hikes. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Amanda Lewan of Michigan State University and Melissa Parnagian of Old Bridge High School in New Jersey. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive
Nation subscriptions. Many thanks to the IF Stone Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute for its generosity in making this contest possible. The Editors

With the car industry coming to a halt, things have been tough in Michigan. Detroit, the motor city capital of America, is losing its ignition—students and families are deserting the state. Thousands of people are leaving because of jobs they can’t find here. The city has fallen victim to a sprawling urban decay.

In Detroit, a 3.5 million-square-foot building stands as a shadow of the city, a result of post-consumerism. The Packard Plant is one of the largest abandoned buildings on the North American continent. It was a structure that brought innovations in design, such as the modern steering wheel, and created a series of “dream cars” for the American people. It is now a symbol of the diminishing car industry.

Like many of my friends and neighbors, my parents are continuously under the stress of losing their jobs. My mother works for a university, where she just finished her bachelor’s degree; unfortunately, she is still behind most of her co-workers, who have gone on to graduate school. She lives from paycheck to paycheck, grappling with debt. It came to a breaking point for us when, in order to keep our house, she filed for bankruptcy. My father works for our city’s public schools, taking pay cuts every year. He continues to hope they don’t outsource his janitorial position to private, inexpensive companies. So far we have been lucky.

Living away from home as a student on a college campus, much of the financial stress is temporarily postponed. While I worked full-time as a waitress and full-time as a student, I managed to feel safe in the classroom. With scholarships and loans, I paid tuition. With tips, I paid rent and bills.

But last summer I faced the same feeling of helplessness my parents deal with every day. In Michigan the Promise Scholarship was awarded to students who did well on state examinations, providing funds throughout their undergraduate years based on their academic achievements. It was a promise to help students who performed well in school. Facing devastating financial burdens, the state broke its promise. My scholarship was pulled away from me a month before tuition was due. With my mother’s bad credit and my father’s low income, I had a hard time finding a loan for private school. I faced the reality that I may not finish my last year of college, that I may have to put aside a degree I couldn’t afford. I felt like none of my hard work seemed to matter. I felt angry and hurt. Mostly, I felt abandoned.

My senior year may not have been full of celebrations, but I did acquire a new sense of pride and respect for myself as a college student. I worked as many hours as I could until I saved up enough to fill the empty slot the scholarship had left behind. I was careful to pass up invitations to dine out or weekend trips with friends. I felt the weight of three dollars spent on a morning’s bagel and coffee. But the ethics of hard work instilled upon me from this experience paid off. I chose to commit myself to my dream of becoming a professor. I was accepted into graduate school.

When many students are asked what their plans are or where they’ll be headed, they often answer that they are moving to another state. When I’m asked, I proudly respond that I will be attending graduate school at a university in Detroit. I know I may be one of the few who answer that I will be staying.

There is a sense of shock that comes over you the first time you see the immense abandoned Packard Plant. The building is gutted and peeled, full of empty windows and crumbling walls. It has been painted on, trampled on, dumped on with piles of garbage. But it hasn’t been forgotten. Abandoned buildings can be redesigned, rebuilt. Their stories can be heard; their lessons can be learned. I plan on continuing my education in order to teach at community colleges, where laid-off workers may be enrolling for their first class in years—or maybe ever. It’s these students and workers that need an education the most right now. If there’s anything this period of time has taught us, it’s how to rebuild and reinvent, how to keep moving forward and to keep working hard even when feeling abandoned.

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