Social Class in the Workplace: Wealth Perception and Experience on the U-M Campus

In 2017, the New York Times published a study listing the University of Michigan with the highest median income and the school with the highest percentage of students coming from the 1% compared to its peers. It also lists that 43% of students come from families in the top 5% of income. It was interesting to see the numbers laid out like that, but not surprising as the signs of that level of wealth are unavoidable when you attend the University of Michigan. In this blogpost, I am sharing my personal story related to wealth and expressing aspirations for the library as a welcoming environment for students from all backgrounds.

In 2008, I started a job at the U-M library before I started classes as an undergraduate. Before enrolling, my dad and I had filled out the FAFSA together and later looked through my financial aid package. (My family was somewhere between a Family 4 and 5 if you open the In-State Family profiles on this U-M Financial Aid page, taking into consideration how tuition has risen since I was in school). We discussed to what level my parents would be supporting me (room and board) and what I would need to cover on my own (tuition and any other spending money). This made getting a job with my work/study award a top priority for me.

The reason I came to school here, like many, was because U-M is known to have the best academic programs in the state and I thought that being at the best school would help me get a better, i.e. more high paying job. Applying out of state wasn’t a consideration as it would have been too expensive. I decided in 8th grade that I would do whatever I could to get into U-M. To make this happen I spent high school bulking up my application through extracurriculars and high grades so that I could get in. I knew next to nothing about Ann Arbor and the makeup of the student population but assumed since it was an in state school that it would be pretty similar to where I came from, a suburb of Grand Rapids.

Once I got here, I slowly began to realize that I was no longer in the middle-upper income tier in Ann Arbor, instead I was more in the middle-lower tier, or at least it felt that way (with the above study backing it up). Very few friends of mine had jobs, many would regularly go clothes shopping (something I never did). They would also order whatever they wanted when we went out to eat whereas I would look for the cheapest thing possible, or eat before we went out. With working and support from my parents, I was still able to participate in going out or throwing parties, but I was always meticulously budgeting and picking up as many hours as I could at work.

It wasn’t just my friends who I noticed had more money than me. The signs of enormous wealth followed me everywhere I went and they’ve only accelerated since I graduated. For students here, there’s no way to escape thinking about income. It determines where you can live, what you can participate in and what social circles you feel comfortable in, putting extra stress on top of overwhelming coursework. Beyond that, visual signs of which world you belong to serve as constant reminders. The ever increasing number of luxury apartment buildings you could never dream to afford and the ever present, over the top Greek Life activities where it seems like carefree rich kids are partying away every day confirm feelings of not belonging, not to mention the number of Canada Goose jackets you encounter on your way to class. These perceptions and realities impact your educational experience at the university.

During the Winter 2018 semester, a guide was put together by students called Being Not Rich at Michigan. In it are tons of great workarounds, tips and tricks and advice on how to navigate U-M when you’re not rich. It’s amazing to see all of this information compiled together because I can attest to the time and stress it takes to figure these things out on your own, especially when your social circle doesn’t seem to care about them at all.

My own privilege is really important to emphasize in this narrative. I am a straight, cis, white woman. I went to a well-funded high school and I come from a supportive family with parents and siblings who also went to college and navigated the financial aid waters. Regardless of what I perceived as a student or how I felt, I always knew I had a form of safety net with my parents. So many students who we serve and employ at the library don’t have the privileges I have. The stress they’re under, opportunities they miss out on and the pressure to succeed are magnified depending on their backgrounds and identities.

So what does this mean for us as an institution on this campus recognizing the range in financial backgrounds and the omnipresent visual and social indicators of wealth? The library is meant to be a place that supports the educational and research needs of our academic community across disciplines. To do that effectively, we need to foster a sense of belonging that takes into account the differences in background and identity that our patrons bring to the table. Our Diversity Strategic Plan outlines a lot of the ways we are already trying to do this but there is more we can aspire to.

When you walk into the Hatcher Graduate Library, the architecture and physical makeup of the building are intimidating. We are immediately reinforcing the ideals of the ivory tower and that education is only meant for the privileged just through the marble-covered walls. Then, if students don’t walk right out the door thinking this isn’t a place for them, (“Am I allowed to come in the Graduate Library if I’m an undergrad?” is a really common question) they meet our use of academic vocabulary. So many students don’t come to U-M knowing what a call number is or how to find a book. At a recent library conference I went to, a presenter expressed frustration and judgment about this, failing to recognize the variety of high school experiences that people have, yes, including experiences where they don’t learn about the library at all. And it’s not just call numbers. Words like critical pedagogy, MOOCs, scholarship, consultation, literature review, praxis and many more feel otherworldly and are alienating if you don’t see yourself as a researcher in training and even if you do. (Don’t get me started on the reSearch pronunciation). Expressed feelings of intimidation and confusion show up over and over again in my personal experience as a service provider and in the user research that I do, in addition to Library Anxiety being well-documented.

At this point, this implicit and explicit messaging is part of who we are. I went from not really knowing the academic meaning of any of that vocabulary to using it in all kinds of settings. It’s easy to fall into and like Shannon and Sheila talked about, expected as a sign of your worthiness as an academic professional, but it doesn’t have to be. Some things we can change, like how we communicate about our services, build relationships and teach and talk to patrons while other things like our building are harder to deconstruct (<-- academic word alert). What I hope for us and see areas of us moving towards is being a place where people feel comfortable, that meets our different user groups where they are, especially those who are new to the academic landscape and are already feeling left out in so many other ways on this wealthy, white campus. I (and I know others) want us to be a community that our users feel part of, where they are valued and they feel they belong through the environment and the services we offer. Not only are you allowed here, we want you here and we want to support and work with you.