The guy who grew up here


Freshman Hayden Cunningham has lived on campus longer than you.

He’s been here 16 years. Almost all of his life.

Since 1999.

Back when your parents may have been listening to “Believe” by Cher on the radio.

Back when the twin towers still stood in New York City.

Back when the Fitness Center on campus was just a parking lot and a grassy hill.

A long time ago, in other words.

In August, when Cunningham moved into Shiple, the freshman hall, he had to haul his things just a few hundred yards.

No moving truck required.

No tearful farewells.

If he gets homesick, Cunningham only needs to walk to a wing of West Quad, where he will find his parents, Mike and Holly, and his two younger siblings, Hannah and Jared.

Hayden Cunningham has resided on campus since age 2, when his father accepted a position as director of the Quads with Residence Life at the University of Detroit Mercy, and moved his young family from Erie, Penn., to the McNichols campus, where they have lived ever since. (The job requires he live here.)

This campus is the only home Hayden remembers.

“I’ll never know what my life might have been like if I didn’t live on this campus,” he said.

He has seen things that most students will never have the opportunity to see during their stay on campus, because he has been here for nearly his entire life. 

With him for 13 of those years has been his sister, Hannah.

She has lived on campus all of her life.

Hayden and Hannah have been more like friends than siblings because in earlier years they were often the only people on campus within their age range.

At first, the Cunningham family lived on the south side of West Quad by the volleyball court. Then, with the addition of the Wellness Center, they moved to the north end of West Quad, closer to the rock.

At first, the move upset him because he liked to watch students play volleyball outside his window, but soon he came to appreciate having his own room.

“My room was basically a walk-in closet,” he said. “I have a bed that’s tucked in really tight and shelves all around. I lived off shelves.”

In between school and homework, Cunningham would walk through campus and clear his head to be refreshed and ready for the day’s activities. It is still one of the ways he relaxes.

He also has long loved the McNichols library, studying and doing homework there. It has always felt like his “safe haven” on campus, he said. 

As a teen, Cunningham would sometimes even attend on-campus events for students, like video game night and basketball games.

His favorite time of the year was summer, he said, because of the quiet. With fewer students, he could play outside with his siblings without feeling awkward or getting odd stares. And the Wi-Fi was super fast.

Living on a college campus, however, was not something that was always on Cunningham’s mind when he was younger.

Perhaps if he had been older upon arriving to UDM, he might have realized what an odd situation his was.

Throughout high school, he avoided telling people that he lived at UDM.

One reason: He knew he would be coming here free of charge. (It’s one of the fringe benefits for the children of UDM employees.)

Cunningham attended Renaissance High School, where many of his peers were working extremely hard to get into the best colleges.

Given the wide variety of students and socio-economic classes at Renaissance, he did not want to be viewed as the kid who had it “the easy way.”

He thought that if people knew that he lived with his family on a campus that he would likely later attend, he might make others more anxious about the pressures of college.

“I definitely did my best to keep it under wraps, and there were only a select few people who knew that I lived here,” he said. “I just didn’t want to be seen as the kid with the silver spoon in his mouth.”

Now, he feels much less pressure to hide his former living situation.

As with most freshmen living at college, Cunningham is experiencing his first home away from home, even though he is just a short walk away. 

He said he loves his room in Shiple, and considers it an upgrade from his former “walk-in closet” space. He does, however, wish the room had more electrical outlets.

But things were not always as simple as too few outlets, he recalled.

“People bash this university a lot,” he said, “but I have seen it in much worse shape because I’ve been around for so long. I was here when people actually still lived in Reno.”

Students haven’t lived in Reno Hall for years, and it now is the home of many faculty offices, a psychology clinic, the Career Education Center and UDM Theatre Company.

His long time on campus has molded Cunningham’s views on many issues.

Years ago, he heard a fight break out beside his bedroom.

“When you see the negative effects of alcohol, like having somebody in a drunken rage try to fight someone right outside your window, you’re just like, I really don’t ever want to do this,” he said.

He also recalled an incident when Public Safety had to tackle a student who got into a physical altercation with his significant other.

Though some students on campus may view Public Safety in a negative light, Hayden has seen officers in action in some dire situations. He appreciates that they are ready to act if a situation presents itself.

Many of his experiences growing up on campus have been positive.

Because his dad has worked closely with students and resident assistants (RAs), Hayden has developed personal relationships with many of them.

 “I’ve watched students and RAs grow to become husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and professionals in their lives and leaders of the future,” he said. “I’ve watched people grow in front of me.”

Among them is Alysa Jackson, a UDM alum and current director of University Services.

“I met Hayden when he was only seven years old,” Jackson said. 

She said she found it easy to talk with him about anything – class, books, etc. – because Hayden always acted mature.

“I used to forget that he was only seven. He has such an intellectual mind,” she added. “I think (his maturity) comes from all the older students and RAs he has befriended over the years.”

Cunningham attributes his maturity to the birth of his brother, Jared, the newest addition to the Cunningham family.

Jared is four years old, so Hayden has vivid memories of his first years.

He remembers feeding him and feels that Jared has made him more conscious of the world around him and how precious life is.

Hayden Cunningham’s childhood presence on campus always intrigued students.

Though there have been questions about being raised on a college campus, Cunningham said he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

He once asked his dad if he thought he would have turned out different if he hadn’t been grown up here. His dad told him that even if he had been born in the Bayou, he still would have come out the same way.

More so, Hayden believes that it is the responsibility of the parents, regardless of where their children are being raised, to keep them on track and out of trouble.

“If the parents just let the kids go crazy, then they’re just going to go crazy,” Hayden said. “If all the kid sees is bad stuff, then, yeah, they’re probably not going to be good. But what if they see happiness and knowledge? Aren’t they going to reflect that like a mirror? I think so.”

Cunningham has nothing but respect for his parents and their choices.

He said until he was 15, his parents were “helicopter parents,” and then they let him make his own decisions and become his own person. 

Since then, he has flourished, he said.

Cunningham said he is grateful for his father’s decision to work for the university and to live on campus, and especially for the opportunities that have now been provided to him and his siblings.

“My dad has given me the most amazing opportunity of my life,” he said. “It’s been tough for him, but he’s given us so much.”

Enrolled in the academic exploration program, Hayden is so far enjoying his college career.

“Even though I don’t know what my major is, I know I have a strong ability to talk to people and to help people,” he said.

He defines his personal life-mission this way: “I want to be a confused individual with contradicting feelings and emotions that open me up to new lessons and experiences and make me truly feel alive.”

Instead of trying to find a path or major, he said that he would rather have everything go crazy and lead him along, which he recognizes sounds irresponsible, but, “It’s the closest we can come to understanding who we are and what we are capable of,” he said.

Cunningham is fascinated with the outside world, but believes that if he doesn’t pay attention to the world around him, he could miss out on something great. 

He said that he doesn’t need to travel the world in order to be immersed in it, and for the time being, he is happy right where he is.

He’s looking forward to what his future brings.

“College is a brand new chapter in my life,” he said.