TRAVERSE CITY — Kathy Sorenson left Traverse City in 1992 because she wanted her children to grow up in a more diverse city.
“I told my husband, ‘We can’t stay here; it’s not diverse here. It’s like Pleasantville,’” she said. “I knew if I was going to stay here, my kids would have limited exposure. I laughed about it. I thought it was the funniest city I’d ever seen.”
Sorenson said she left Traverse City instead of trying to change it, but worries some people are trying to do just that by “importing diversity.” Traverse City Area Public Schools plans to enroll up to 200 Chinese high school students, while Northwestern Michigan College aims to boost international enrollment from 21 this fall to about 230, or about 5 percent of total enrollment.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful city here, but you can change it on a dime,” warned Sorenson, a registered nurse who has since returned to the area. “You can’t go to Dearborn without feeling like you’re in a foreign country. I worked for the Henry Ford Hospital. They changed all the signs to add Arabic. Catering to the Arabic population who refuses to assimilate to American English has ruined that great city for our family. That’s what’s going to happen here. They’ll have a little Chinese street down here.”
Yet others randomly interviewed welcomed the change. Many said they’ve hosted foreign exchange students.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Ben Shemberger of Thompsonville, who takes criminal justice classes at NMC and works at The Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee. “All the races are changing, mixing with everything else. So why not the schools?”
Jerry Lown, who retired from Concrete Services in Traverse City, said he’s hosted exchange students for 16 years, mostly from Japan. He enjoyed teaching his Chinese student, Xiao Lee, how to speak English. Now she owns and runs a restaurant in Wales.
“I see nothing wrong. I think it’s positive. You learn the whole world from these students and they will learn from us,” he said.
Traverse City resident Elaine Summers, who has a retail job, agrees. She believes all nationalities deserve a chance to get a good education.
Suzique Couture of Mesick, who manages Lark Lawn and Garden in Blair Township, worries about the potentially high concentration of students from China, a national trend among the nation’s universities.
“But NMC has to do what it has to do to remain competitive,” said Couture, a graduate of NMC and Western Michigan University.
Traverse City could use some diversity, said Monique Nickerson of Kingsley, who’s hosted six foreign exchange students.
“I would never have taken the time and effort to learn about other countries unless I experienced it through them. If we had more nationalities, we’d have greater awareness of what’s going on other countries’ forefront. It’s fun.”
Larry Fleis, who owns Lark Lawn and Garden, hosted five or six exchange students. He said there “won’t be any diversity at all” because the students will very likely come from wealthy families. The poor and middle class can’t afford to send their children to college here. The positive side: the exchange students are unlikely to be troublemakers, he said.
“They’re not the ones wearing their pants down by their ankles,” said Fleis, a former Traverse City Police captain.