A Comeback Tale of Two Cities

A Comeback Tale of Two Cities

Inner-City Youth Paid to Improve Challenged Neighborhoods and Learn from Retired Auto Execs
tweet me:
.@HeidiMagyar, @GM's director of community outreach programs, discusses the impact of the GM Student Corps program: http://bit.ly/1QUCMao

Multimedia from this Release

General Motors Student Corps workers and retirees pose for a photo at Lincoln High School in Warren, Michigan on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (Photo by Rob Widdis for General Motors)

Heidi Magyar is director of community outreach programs for Southeast Michigan at General Motors.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015 - 3:30pm

CAMPAIGN: GM Diversity


If you drive through the City of Detroit, it’s almost a tale of two cities. There’s the city of business growth and revitalization, but there’s also the city of neighborhood blight and decades of decay.

As a top employer and industry leader in the state, General Motors is driven to serve and improve our communities. One way we do this is through an internship program called GM Student Corps, which pays students to perform community service projects in challenged neighborhoods while partnering with GM retirees to learn valuable life and career skills. 

The students hired are resource constrained; they are not talent constrained. They’re intelligent people that need to know that where they start is not where they finish. We wanted to provide these students with the financial, educational and developmental resources to fully leverage their talents and empower them as future leaders.

The GM Foundation donates money to some of the public schools in Detroit, but that’s only part of the impact equation. GM Student Corps enables the company to get directly involved in the students’ lives while improving deeply distressed communities. GM’s goal is to use 10 weeks to make an impression upon these kids for the rest of their lives.

It’s a different approach, but one that’s paid the community, the students and the company dividends.

Looking Up: The Power of Role Models and Mentorship

The company rallies its retirees to serve as mentors to the students. These people who were legends in their careers, helping lead General Motors, are now dedicating their time to influencing tomorrow’s talent.

They work with the students throughout the summer, covering a variety of topics from college preparation, to professional development, to leadership lessons.  The program helps equip them for life after high school, whether it is college, vocational education or full-time employment.

For many students, this internship is their first paying job. The program addresses an immediate financial need while putting them on a long-term path to success as future professionals and community leaders, while contributing to Detroit’s revitalization.

Over the program’s three-year history, 342 interns supported by 211 mentors learned about topics such as personal finance, decision making, effective communication and conflict resolution, health and safety, college applications, and job interviewing. Equipping students with this knowledge then opens the door for rich conversations about their goals.  To help them broaden their horizons, GM facilitated tours of various businesses, nonprofits and colleges.

Painting the Town: How Students Transformed Blight to Light

GM Student Corps participants designed and executed innovative projects that made their communities safer, more welcoming, and better places to live and learn.  Blocks that people once feared to walk down and perpetually empty parks became transformed and are now full of life.  Collectively, over the course of three summers, the teams:

  • Renovated 26 schools and 33 parks
  • Planted 1,513 trees, plants, flowers and shrubs
  • Laid 1,600 yards of mulch
  • Applied 626 gallons of paint to tables, benches, doors and fire hydrants

Each team is empowered to come up with their own projects. This approach works as students can best relate to their neighborhood’s needs. In the end, the community is brought together through projects that are of interest to everyone involved.

What’s most exciting is the momentum and ripple effect created. Neighborhood residents join students by volunteering their time on project sites. Mayors and City Councils endorse projects to ensure renovations are maintained. People start to take pride in their own yards and come outside to cut the grass.  Public service employees lend their time and equipment.

As a result, students feel a sense of community and pride in their efforts and feel motivated to continue a path of leadership in their schools and communities.

Even after the program’s conclusion, the retiree mentors remain connected to the students with regular check-ins, report card reviews, even joining them on college visits.  They’ve helped students find employment, assisted with college applications, and stood by their sides at graduation ceremony.

The Payback

The transformation in both the communities and the students themselves is what makes this program so valuable. The students grow immensely as people. They are inspired by what they accomplished and the discipline and tenacity it took to do it. In turn, the communities are inspired by them and their work.

The GM retirees even report being re-energized by the uplifting and powerful change they have helped create. Some who are over 60 years old have even commented that spending the summer with 17- and 18-year-olds helps them from getting stodgy. That 50-year difference offers refreshing perspective for both parties.

GM Student Corps shows the impact companies can make by harnessing the power of their teams to help empower young people to succeed. It also shows that while adequate funding of education is absolutely vital, the personal nature of mentoring yields a priceless sense of confidence, pride and motivation in students that may have been overlooked by society. It has given at-risk youth a lifeline and solid path to success, along with the ability to pay it forward.

In fact, in combination with a robust program and grant funded by the GM Foundation, graduation rates in seven Detroit-area schools rose from 50 percent to 80 in just five years.

Detroit has benefitted greatly from this effort. Going forward, perhaps this internship program may even serve as a model behind the comeback tale of many more inner cities.

Heidi Magyar is director of community outreach programs for Southeast Michigan at General Motors.

This post originally appeared on CSRwire's Talkback blog.