Living the Mission at the University of Detroit Mercy

By Ron Bernas, Office of University Advancement, University of Detroit Mercy

First-generation students Barbara Fama and Jamari Rowland listen to a speaker at a FirstGen Network meeting Photo by University of Detroit Mercy).

First-generation students Barbara Fama and Jamari Rowland listen to a speaker at a FirstGen Network meeting Photo by University of Detroit Mercy).

University of Detroit Mercy Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry—and alumnus—Matthew Mio has a theory: “Everyone who works here knows the mission of the school, but everyone interprets it differently—there is not just one way to carry out our mission.”

It’s only 44 words long, but those words inspire a sense of community drawn straight from the University’s Jesuit and Mercy founders. Here are four of the creative ways that faculty, staff and administrators carry out their interpretation of the mission of Detroit Mercy.

"University of Detroit Mercy, a Catholic university in the Jesuit and Mercy traditions, exists to provide excellent student-centered undergraduate and graduate education in an urban context.

The Mission Micro Grant Program provides grants of up to $200 for faculty and staff to run projects that support the University's mission. Here the Chemistry Club demonstrates the fun in chemical reactions to elementary students to raise interest in STEM fields (Photo by University of Detroit Mercy).

The Detroit Collaborative Design Center, known as the DCDC and housed within the Detroit Mercy School of Architecture, is a 23-year-old nonprofit architecture and urban design firm. It helps to connect community members with the resources necessary to create viable and sustainable enhancements driven and supported by local residents. The work is funded primarily by philanthropic grants.

The DCDC offers a broad range of services (e.g. architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design, and community engagement strategies) to nonprofit clients in Detroit and elsewhere across the country. Recent projects include:

  • A park with rain and butterfly gardens, play area and green space in a neighborhood that had been devoid of safe play-spaces for children;
  • A $1.5-million renovation of a park (built in conjunction with students at a Detroit high school) featuring a new performance pavilion and picnic area;
  • A series of community resource “how-to” guides for organizations and residents that address such issues as creating and maintaining a neighborhood block club, finding resources for small businesses, and preparing a grant proposal.

That last project, in collaboration with Impact Detroit, earned the organization one of more than a dozen awards that it has received over the years. This year, the American Institute of Architects bestowed the DCDC with its prestigious Whitney M. Young Jr. Award given to an architect or architectural organization that “embodies social responsibility and actively addresses a relevant issue such as affordable housing or universal access.”

“For any architect or organization committed to public interest design, this is without a doubt the highest honor one could hope to receive,” said Will Wittig, AIA, Dean of the School of Architecture. “We are humbled to be the recipients of this distinction.”

A Detroit Mercy education seeks to integrate the intellectual, spiritual… 

Mechanical Engineering student Molly Laird works on a stroller, redesigned for a client who must use a wheelchair as part of the University's Faces on Design program (Photo by University of Detroit Mercy).

Capstone projects are common in engineering programs at colleges and universities; Detroit Mercy’s is unique. Mechanical Engineering students spend their senior year designing and building an assistive technology project for one person. The project is called Faces on Design.

The clients are selected by the University’s McAuley School of Nursing faculty from recommendations by the Detroit Veterans Administration. Last year, a group of students built a motorized device to help a woman with lupus load her 52-pound wheelchair into her trunk. Other projects include a spoon for a client with tremors and a pad that helps prevent bedsores.

Engineering students work in tandem with Nursing students who can advise on design issues based on their knowledge of medical devices already available and the individual patient needs.

“It’s not just a project,” said Nassif Rayess, assistant dean of research and outreach for the College of Engineering & Science. “The motivation is not grades. It’s for a client and the client has a face.” 

…ethical and social development of students.”

Nearly one third of those who attend Detroit Mercy are first-generation college students, a population defined as students whose parents do not have a four-year college degree. 

These students face hurdles that students with a history of university education in their immediate families do not: They are more likely to come from low-income families and are more likely to leave college without graduating. 

In her role as chair of the University’s Undergraduate Retention Committee, Mary-Catherine Harrison, an associate professor of English, has listened to these students talk about their misunderstandings about college logistics and their fears about not succeeding. “I found a lot of first-generation students experienced self-doubt or ‘imposter syndrome,’ and said they didn’t feel [like] they belong at a university.” 

That was Harrison’s impetus in forming FirstGen Network. It’s a loose support group that brings these students together with faculty, staff, alumni and other students who are first-generation college graduates. A series of videos by these mentors of sorts—from professors, administrators, even Detroit Mercy's Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Pamela Zarkowski— provides laughter and advice as they share how they navigated the college experience, often with little or no support from home.

The organization also serves as a source of information to students who may need other University-sponsored services, such as the Student Success Center and TRIO Student Support Services program. A $25,000 grant from the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Mercy Ministry Grants helped fund the program.

“What’s good about this group,” said Nursing student Marco Ineguez, “is to know there are other people like me here.”


The mission of Detroit Mercy manifests itself in smaller ways, too, thanks to the Mission Micro Grant Program in which employees can apply for University grants of up to $200 to perform a mission-centered project.

Since 2008, more than 200 micro grants have been awarded in a variety of areas. They have gone as honoraria for speakers; support for an employee Women’s Prayer Group; foot care kits for Nursing students working with homeless people; oral health educational materials for local children; and food for a small free pantry set up to help Detroit Mercy students and employees.

“One of the joys is [seeing] the sheer variety of projects that have requested funding,” said Associate Professor of English Rosemary Weatherston, who came up with the idea. “It helps people do things they’re already committed to doing.”

Matthew Mio, who has received these grants in the past to offer chemistry demonstrations to local elementary schools, adds: “There is not just one way to carry out our mission. There are many, and this program makes them all possible.”