Pass the Privilege

Last spring, students at the University of Michigan created an online affordability document that went viral. This is why it matters


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Campus Security: Past and present U-M students and faculty members strive to level the playing field at the picturesque campus

The University of Michigan has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the largest and most renowned institutions in the nation. And as one of the few public universities that has the brand recognition to draw in almost half of its students from out of state — who pay more than double the tuition rate of those in Michigan — the socioeconomic profile of its student body does not align with the country at large.

“Michigan is a very prestigious school, but it’s also a public school, so it attracts people who want the best of both worlds,” says Nadine Jawad, a 2018 graduate who majored in public policy and is heading to study at Oxford this season as a Rhodes Scholar. First-year medical student, Vy Tran, agrees. “The majority of us are still not rich, so the university provides a very interesting intersection of elitism.” It’s an environment where questions of class, income, and financial responsibility are inevitably pushed to the fore.

Last spring, Lauren Schandevel — now a senior majoring in public policy — decided that it was time to create a guide to help low-income students better navigate life at U-M. The Warren native created a short, public Google Doc, titled Being Not-Rich at UM, and invited any student, alumnus, or faculty member with advice on the topic to contribute.

Vy Tran, a first-year medical student

That brief document has since spiraled into an extensive  91-page rule-book on money management aimed at assisting the less privileged classes. It’s been viewed thousands of times, covered by the likes of NPR and The Chronicle of Higher Ed, and has inspired similar versions in other universities across the country. Its popularity evidences the pressing lack of guidance that many lower-income students on college campuses experience. “The needs of lower-income students go beyond financial aid,” Schandevel says, “it’s not just about surviving on campus. It’s about making sure you can thrive.”

Campus Conversations

In many ways, the groundwork for the document was laid in place long before its inception. “Affordability is a big topic on campus,” says Jawad, who served as vice president of the Central Student Government. As a self-identified lower-income student from Dearborn, matters of money were especially key to Jawad’s experience on campus. “In my first month [as a student] I won a scholarship that supplemented my academics,” she says. “There are a lot of resources on campus, but you have to find them, and that’s not something every student knows how to do.” So, in the fall of 2016, Jawad began looking into ways to help her classmates better understand the resources available to them. She joined the central student government and got to work on one of its impending initiatives: creating a list of tips and tricks to save money. “We staged town halls and we had focus groups,” she says. Through these town halls, the student government gathered a roster of contributors willing to share ideas for saving money on campus. “Some students wanted to write about how to cook your own meals. Some wanted to offer tips on ways to not stress-shop. We ended up with a list of more than 25 contributors,” Jawad says. In January 2018, the list, officially termed the Campus Affordability Guide: Your Guide to Cost-Effective Living at the University of Michigan went live, and to her surprise, uproar followed.

“Now, what I affirm is that any education that would leave the higher education accessible to the rich alone would be in the highest degree unwise.”
—James B. Angell, president of University of Michigan (1871-1909)

Students across campus railed against it as being “tone-deaf” and oblivious to the needs of students with serious financial burdens. Suggestions were along the lines of “buy generic over name brand” or “use a refillable water bottle instead of buying bottled water.” “It wasn’t as much of an affordability guide as it was a list of tips for saving your parents’ money,” says Hassan Ahmad, another 2018 graduate who majored in political science. Ahmad, a Canton native, saw himself as a bridge between the student government leadership and the creators of Being Not-Rich at UM, though he ended up contributing to the latter. “[Jawad] was the first minority, lower socieconomic status [SES] student to be vice president of the student government in a long time. So, it wasn’t hard for her to understand what went wrong.” That awareness allowed Jawad to maintain perspective in spite of the ire directed towards her. “I was so focused on the content of the guide that I made the mistake of not thinking about the intentionality of the name,” she admits.

"There's this perception out there that poor people just make poor decisions with their money and that's why they're poor ... I had to correct that assumption." — Lauren Schandevel, creator of Being Not-Rich at UM (pictured)

Propelled by frustration, Schandevel, who hails from a working-class background, became a central figure in the backlash. “There’s this perception out there that poor people make poor decisions with their money and that’s why they’re poor,” she says. “That was reflected in student government’s affordability guide and I had to correct that assumption.” It’s rare that frustration begets fruits, but in Schandevel’s case, it did. So much so, that even Jawad agrees. “Though I wouldn’t have gone about creating it in the same way, I think that Being Not-Rich at UM is a great product. I don’t think a student government could have ever put that together.” The office of Public Affairs at U-M had no comment on the Google Doc.

Not-Rich 101

The Google Doc is divided into 16 sections that touch on everything from off-campus housing to affording school supplies to life after graduation. Each section draws from a mix of detailed factual information and personal anecdotes, thereby catering to those looking for general overview to those seeking insider tips. Under the heading, “Study Abroad and Study Domestic,” for example, there is a list of various international and domestic travel grants available to students at the university, but there is also a blurb on how to sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights, an alum’s email blast that provides information on airfare deals. Every contributor is requested to leave their contact information at the end of the Google Doc so that students looking to inquire further into a particular section can access the relevant person. On last count, there were 35 contributors officially listed — some current students, some alumni, and some faculty members. There are, however, several more who appear throughout the annotations in the Google Doc. It’s this focus on accessibility by way of transparency that has been one of the keys to its success. “The public nature of the doc…feels more authentic to contributors because it’s clearly not an official university publication. They can be completely honest about their experiences on campus because I won’t edit their language or police their tone,” Schandevel says.

“The majority of us are still not rich, so the university provides a very interesting intersection of elitism.”
— Vy Tran, a first-year medical student

Ivory Towers

As the epicenter of collegiate life, many contributors agree that the university attempts to mitigate socioeconomic differences in the classroom — sometimes successfully, other times not as much. “We have a strong advising program here. I wish more students took advantage of it,” says Rachel Patterson, an academic adviser in the department of biomedical engineering who added her name to the Google Doc. She believes that they can be critical for those who have a limited network of support. “I’m a licensed counselor and a first-generation college graduate. The document helps students who are not used to having so many resources find people like me.” The Google Doc’s lengthy section, “On-Campus Resources,” also helps students find scholarships specific to their major, and counseling offices that cater to the specific needs of female or first-generation students.

For Elizabeth Strehl, a senior in the bio-medical engineering department from Kalamazoo, these resources have not been enough to help overcome the difficulties of her classes. “The personal challenges I face during my time at the university has really made me think about how I want to change things. They’ve actually made me decide to move away from engineering into more of a broad, policy-based, restructuring of STEM education.”

"I work for the office of undergraduate admissions as a tour guide and in the screen arts department as a teacher's aide.Being so busy with work, I have a lot less itme to join social clubs or Greek life, because I'm spending the rest of my free time doing homework." — Natalie Anderson, a junior majoring in screen arts and culture (Above)

Natalie Anderson, a junior who is majoring in screen arts and culture, has had a 180 degree experience, getting more support at the university. “The screen arts department at Michigan is small, but it’s so, so, good,” she says. “I’ve made so friends in the past two years who are already sitting in writers’ rooms for Netflix and doing really cool things.” At the same time Anderson explains how the best students in her classes often come to school with expensive cameras, a command over editing programs like Adobe Creative Suite, and a clearer sense of how to translate their academics into a career — the kind of awareness that Anderson never could have developed in her working-class Saginaw hometown.

Schandevel sees these discrepancies as reflective of larger inequalities. “A lot of wealthier students received such a robust, liberal arts, all-encompassing K through 12 education that allows them to develop their talents and their passions. Whereas lower income students jump into college without having had much of a chance to develop their own talents and interests. And higher income students can act on those interests and take majors that might not obviously lead to a job because they have the connections to get where they want to be. Lower-income students don’t really have that luxury, so it’s more of an uphill battle.”

The Google Doc has a section on “Long-Term Advocacy,” which focuses on these very issues. Defining terms like opportunity hoarding “the process of class reproduction through manipulation of resource quality and access,” or gentrification, so that lower SES students can understand, systemically, why they are facing the challenges they are. For a student like Anderson, understanding the root of her disadvantages, can be essential to overcoming them.

The Job Market

For most lower-income students, having an on-campus job is mandatory. Strehl began working as a lifeguard immediately after coming to campus because she knew her mother would not be able to provide her the money she needed to pay for books, school supplies, and fees. She now has two jobs on campus, one as a residential assistant and the other as supervisor in the REC sports department.

Many of the Google Doc’s student contributors maintain one, or even two jobs, over the course of their four years on campus. “I work for the office of undergraduate admissions as a tour guide and in the screen arts department as a teacher’s aide,” Anderson says. “Being so busy with work I have a lot less time to join social clubs or Greek life, because I’m spending the rest of my free time doing homework.” It’s a plight echoed by so many  undergraduates that the topic of employment is one of the most robust sections on the Google Doc, which outlines details on the hourly wages, flexibility levels, and difficulty of a host of jobs on campus. Dining halls jobs, which pay $11 an hour, are stated to be a “great opportunity with possibility of advancement into leadership positions.”

The struggles of employment, however, are not just limited to life on campus. The Google Doc also addresses off-campus jobs, working over the summer, and paid versus unpaid internship opportunities — lower-income students are often forced to decline the kind of unpaid, experiential internships that their wealthier classmates can afford to accept. “This summer I got offered an unpaid internship working at some hospitals in South India, and I really wanted to go because it’s something I’m passionate about,” Strehl says. “But I was forced to say no because I didn’t have a way to pay for myself there.”

Room for Improvement

While Being Not-Rich at UM is undoubtedly extensive, there are still sections that remain sparse. “The section on ‘Being Not-Rich and A Minority’ is one of the weakest sections of the document,” Schandevel says. Right now, it consists of little more than empty sub-headings — “Being Not-Rich and South Asian;” “Being Not-Rich and International;” “Being Black at Michigan.” It’s not entirely clear why there is such a reticence surrounding the issue, but Schandevel knows to treat the topic with care.

“Particularly being black at U-M, people have already talked at length about it so many times that maybe they don’t want to exert that kind of emotional energy into explaining it again. I don’t feel like I have the authority to fill that section out though,” she says. Jawad, too has noticed a hesitation. “I was following some Facebook threads where a couple Arab students were basically saying that they felt that their voices were
excluded from the conversation,” she says, “and that just because it was a public document, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is accessible to students of color.”

As obtuse as the original Campus Affordability Guide may have been, Jawad notes that diversity was always a focus. It becomes natural to wonder why race and class are so loath to intersect at U-M. “I think the two are best analyzed in conjunction with each other,” Schandevel says, “but it’s hard to do something like that without being tokenizing.”

Finality, however, is not in the blueprint of Being Not-Rich at UM. The forces of change, growth, and improvement are what brought the document to fruition. Its purpose is to serve as a constant and immediate reflection of the conversations that shape a university campus, and perhaps, even the conversations that shape life at large.

 

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