(Photo courtesy of Benjamin Davidson on Flickr)
(Photo courtesy of Benjamin Davidson on Flickr)

BY GABBY BOYER, Staff Columnist

Over winter break, I had the privilege to travel to Saudi Arabia with a couple of students from different universities around the country. In the van ride to the airport, we exchanged the awkward pleasantries that students forced into moving vehicles tend to do. As it turned out, half of the delegation was from Michigan, and we happily chatted about where in the state we lived. I lived the closest to metro-Detroit, and talked about southwest Michigan and Detroit in particular.

At the sound of “Detroit”, one of my traveling companions from Vermont looked directly at me and said, “Isn’t Detroit…like a slum?” The other students from Michigan quickly concurred, and I bitterly quipped, “No, it’s a city, so it has good and bad parts.” She shrugged me off and the rest of the commute I sat in an angry silence. Who was she to call Detroit a slum? Furthermore, who were these people from northern, western and central Michigan, who have never spent more than a day downtown to call it a slum or dangerous?

Frankly, I was pissed off. I was mad that so many people were willing to write Detroit off as done, as a slum. I was furious that even fellow students from Michigan weren’t willing to change anything. I was pissed off at the fact that I used to think like this too.

It’s really ironic that people who I think would believe the most in Detroit lived 6,824 miles away.

When I was in Saudi Arabia, I remained fascinated by two things: how new everything was and how young the people were. Seventy percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under thirty years old, yet the country is hitting an infrastructure and education boom. I expected tents and deserts; they showed me buildings higher and more sophisticated than I had ever seen. I expected women confined to houses, they showed me universities filled to the seams with women, all expecting MAs, MSs, and PhDs. I expected mega corporations; I was shown thousands of small businesses, all thriving.  Everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic, optimistic, and was looking forward to graduating and staying in their region.

Immediately, I wrote it off as mostly King Abdullah and royal decrees making the country do so well. It’s really easy to have a change if someone forces you to do something or stay somewhere. But when I spoke to Saudi students, I found that a lot of them had studied in the United States and came back to Saudi Arabia willing to go to work. They told me that they had seen real change, and yes King Abdullah was a factor, but so were students coming back to invest in the kingdom. No student is ever forced back into the country. These people came back on their own.

What does this have to do with Detroit?  We are doing the opposite. The people of Michigan aren’t investing in the city. They don’t want to live there. They don’t want to build there. And those who do don’t want to remain there. So I ask Michiganders, “Why not?” Because Detroit is too old? Saudi Arabia is older. Because Detroit is too poor? Saudi Arabia was one of the poorest countries in the Middle East.

The hard truth is that Detroit is never going to develop if we don’t stand up and invest in it. And by investing, I mean budget reform, educational reform, and the most important thing—attitude reform.  There is so much young talent that comes from Michigan. Why are we outsourcing ourselves? Why are our civil engineers going to places like Chicago? Why are our MPPs going to Washington? Why are our artists going to New York, and letting a once beautiful city go to waste? Why have the young given up on Detroit?

So what I learned from the Saudis is this simple truth: change will not come overnight, but change will come as long as people remain engaged and invested. So while I may not see the glorious comeback of Detroit, just like the first Saudis working for Aramco did not see modern Saudi Arabia, I am going to work towards it. And I know there are many like me.