Susan Rosegrant has always had an interest in birding and travel, inheriting her love of nature from her mother and siblings at a young age.
“I pretty much started birding from birth because I had the good fortune of coming from a family of birders,” she said.
Since moving back to Michigan, where she teaches creative nonfiction as a lecturer IV in the Residential College at the University of Michigan and heads the RC’s First-Year Seminar Program, Rosegrant became more serious about birding and has spotted more than 400 North American birds.
With 5 acres of trails behind her house in Ypsilanti, she said she’s seen 120 species in her backyard this year. A particularly satisfying sighting from a few years ago was a large songbird called the northern shrike.
“They’re these crazy masked birds that eat other smaller birds. They will actually sometimes impale them on barbed wire,” she said. “It had been a real nemesis bird for me. I’ve been wanting to see them since I first read about them.”
She’s an active participant in the local birding community through groups like Washtenaw Audubon and Ann Arbor WhatsApp groups where birders can share sightings and rarities in the area.
Beyond her Ypsilanti backyard, she has traveled across the world to see birds in places such as the Galapagos Islands, Belize, Machu Picchu, and Trinidad and Tobago with her then 80-year-old mother. Among her favorite sightings are the toucans in Belize, the blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos, and two types of puffins on a tour through Alaska.
“My husband, our older daughter and I went to Belize, and there are toucans and all kinds of amazing hummingbirds, so that was a really great trip,” she said. “Plus, we saw a jaguar, and that was incredibly cool because that’s not common to get to see them because they’re extremely shy.”
Rosegrant and her husband and daughter had planned a trip to Lesbos, Greece, in April to watch the spring migrations passing from Africa toward Europe, but the trip was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes to explore more places once international travel opens more.
“I want to go everywhere. I want to go back to Alaska and see more of the birds there,” she said. “I’ve never been to southern Texas, or some of those wonderful birding opportunities. I’d love to go to Africa, I’d love to go back to Asia. You know pretty much, I want to see all the birds in the world.”
Traveling abroad has opened doors for Rosegrant beyond birding. While studying in Taiwan as an undergraduate student, she became the star of a Chinese-speaking soap opera after a teacher told her about an audition at a local television station. Her character was a farm girl from Kentucky who had come over to learn about Taiwanese agriculture.
“This is the miracle of what can happen when you’re in another country,” she said. “Things that you can’t do back in your home country suddenly become possible, and it was amazing. Every morning I’d walk out of the Taiwanese family’s house where I lived, and kids would chase me down the street, calling out my name.”
After staying in Taiwan for 14 months, she ended her role and returned to the United States.
“It was hard to do the soap opera with all the filming and also stay up late and be quite serious about my classes,” she said. “They wrote into the plot that my father back in the U.S. had died and I needed to go home and help out on the farm.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and literature from the Residential College at U-M in 1976 and a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University in 1978.
After living in the Boston area for more 30 years, she and her husband, David Lampe, moved back to Michigan in 2007 when Lampe was appointed vice president for communications at U-M, a position he held until 2011.
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She started teaching at the university in 2008 after running into one of her former professors at the 40th anniversary of the Residential College, and he encouraged her to pursue teaching. In addition to teaching creative nonfiction and journalism and heading the college’s required writing courses, Rosegrant is an academic adviser.
“I thought I would be a writer all of my life, and I’m still a writer, but to be able to do this kind of work, interact with such talented students, it just gives me pleasure every day,” she said.
Rosegrant currently teaches two courses each year: a first-year seminar in the fall that explores the craft of narrative journalism, and a memoir-writing course in the winter for upper-class students. The courses are small and cultivate an open environment for workshops and discussion.
“I’ve had some students in my first-year seminar then take the memoir course as their final course,” she said. “That’s really thrilling to see how much students have developed in the four years, and to renew those relationships is very satisfying.”
Meanwhile, Rosegrant has given binoculars to her 3- and 5-year-old grandchildren, and they’re already learning bird songs. “The obsession continues,” she said.
Q & A
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
Two moments: The pure terror of walking down the hall to teach my first class, and the pleasure in still corresponding, 12 years on, with a student from that class — and with students from later classes.
What can’t you live without?
In no particular order: Birds. Great books. Family. Time alone. Close friends. Work that gives life meaning.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
East Quad. It’s where I lived and studied in college, where my office and classrooms are now. The past and present have converged in startling ways.
What inspires you?
People. Students who work hard and take risks and produce unexpectedly good writing. My colleagues at the Residential College, who are smart, funny and serious about teaching. My extended family — husband, two daughters, son-in-law, two grandkids, and 24 more close relatives. When we’re together, it feels like the world can become a better place.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading or rereading memoirs to consider for my winter course, including Jesmyn Ward’s “Men We Reaped,” Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” and Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy.” I recently discovered novelist Jill Ciment (“Heroic Measures,” “The Body in Question”), and will read her memoir “Half a Life.” I’ve already devoured most of the good mysteries in the world. Suggestions? I’m always working through a stack of birding magazines. I avoid the apocalyptic ones before bed.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Warren Hecht, who started the Creative Writing Program at the Residential College and who was my teacher in the 1970s, told me when I moved back to Ann Arbor in 2007 that I should teach writing. I taught my first students a couple of months later. I’m a different teacher than Warren was, but he showed how to respect students, treat everyone decently, and believe in the power and importance of writing.