Building an Inclusive Campus: A Story of Collaboration

Like many other new first-year students, Kyle Wickham was learning to adjust to his reading load for his humanities core sequence. During class, the students were working to unpack the reading when one student made a comment that struck Wickham.

By Grace Koh

Karyn Peyton / The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

March 18, 2016

Like many other new first-year students, Kyle Wickham was learning to adjust to his reading load for his humanities core sequence. During class, the students were working together to unpack the reading—a difficult one—when one student made a comment that particularly caught Wickham’s attention.

The student argued that some people, who did not have the proper educational background, could easily misconstrue the author’s text and thus render it meaningless. “He was basically saying there should be some things that should only be accessible to people who go to higher education,” Wickham recounted.

While for some the comment might have passed by as a harmless theoretical idea regarding public versus elite accessibility, Wickham felt that the comment had much more serious consequences.

As a first-generation and low-income student, Wickham contextualized the comment within his own experience. He grew up in a single-parent household. His mother did not attend college and worked as a waitress at fast food restaurants throughout most of his life.

For Wickham, the “some people” who should potentially not be allowed to read a text was not a nameless social group—it was his family.

“There are a lot of people out there who don’t have this access,” Wickham explained. “Just because you’re a first-year at the University of Chicago doesn’t make you any more privileged to read this.”

Repeated interactions such as these signal to Wickham and many other first-generation and low-income students that they do not belong—or at least that they are considered outsiders to the University community.

In response, students have formed advocacy groups to provide support for first-generation and low-income students and to lobby for institutional change. Since then, these groups have been able to build cooperative relationships with administrative officials. One of the most significant outcomes was the recent creation of the Center for College Student Success (CCSS), an office dedicated to supporting students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds

Many other colleges nationwide have recently made strides to strengthen inclusivity by releasing new financial aid plans, and some have even established centers similar to the CCSS. UChicago has recently rolled out No Barriers, a new initiative announced last year, which will expand access to the University through changes to admissions and financial aid. No Barriers ensures that incoming undergraduates will receive need-based aid without loans, waives fees for students applying for financial aid, holds free information sessions in high schools, and provides additional scholarships for disadvantaged students, among other new programs. However, students and administrators also need to make sure that once students arrive on campus, measures will be taken to guarantee continued inclusivity and success.

Along with greater focus being given to these issues, the students’ ability to create and maintain a relatively cooperative relationship with the administration has been an important catalyst for productive and tangible change in the University, as manifested in the creation of the CCSS.

 

The Problem

“Well, if you’re so worried about money, why not just go back home to the ghetto and be a prostitute?”

Michelle Musielewicz could not believe what she was hearing. As a low-income student whose father was unemployed, she was working 20 hours a week in addition to adjusting to the

University of Chicago workload. She was interrupted with this piece of advice as she was talking to her friend about how she wished that she did not have to work while she was in school.

While first-generation or low-income students may not face such explicit signs of exclusion very often, many students say they do face implicit signs of exclusion more frequently than others may realize.

Wickham explained how the dining hall closing on Saturdays and unexpected house fees are powerful indicators of exclusivity and have serious consequences for low-income students. Wickham is one of the presidents of Quest Scholars Network—the University of Chicago’s chapter for QuestBridge, a scholarship for high-achieving low-income students.

“When you’re isolating students because of money, that’s something that’s just wrong,” Wickham said.

Another student, Lynda Lopez had been successful in high school and received a QuestBridge scholarship. Like many other students at UChicago, she was surprised when she found herself struggling academically. Unlike many others, however, she was a first-generation college student and did not understand that these doubts were natural for students transitioning into college.

After she read about how nationwide, many first-generation and low-income students felt excluded by the implicit middle- and upper-class values that elite university culture seemed to promote, Lopez began to learn how to contextualize and verbalize her experience.

Her struggles were not necessarily from her personal inadequacy or because she did not deserve to be a student at the University of Chicago. Rather, they were a result of an underlying difference between her background and the culture and environment of the University.

She decided that she wanted to work toward change, so that other students coming in from similar backgrounds would not have to experience any similar feelings. She wanted students to be proud of their backgrounds and realize that they are assets, not unwanted hindrances, to the University community.

Lopez and other like-minded peers decided to form a group that eventually became the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance (SDA) to achieve this goal.

The priority of the SDA was initially raising awareness, not only because addressing campus culture was important, but also because they saw it as an important first step to enacting change.

One of the group’s first initiatives was creating a Facebook group in 2013 called UChicago Class Confessions as an anonymous platform for students to share their experiences with socioeconomic diversity. It raised awareness for concerns that may go more unnoticed than others, due to the fact that unlike race or gender, socioeconomic diversity is more “invisible.” That is—compared to someone’s racial identity, for example—it is not as automatically visible that someone may have grown up in a single-parent household, or has to work a part time job to send financial support back home.

During another campaign, students wrote specific concerns, such as “I have to send my refund checks home to support my family” and “I go hungry on Saturday nights” on a poster, and held them on the main quad.

The SDA was devoted to being a supportive community, and also to advocating for changes and raising awareness about the concerns that such students face. Opening an office specifically catered to serving the unique needs of first-generation and low-income students would have the resources to address both of these goals more effectively than a student group could.

SDA illustration

Forging Relationships

Yet the SDA knew that creating an office would be a much more complex and difficult process than creating a Facebook group or hosting a campaign.

Lopez and other students had already begun developing relationships with University staff members, including Lori Hurvitz. In the spring of 2013 when SDA was beginning to form, Hurvitz was the director of the College Programming Office and coincidentally a part of the college staff “task force” that had formed to address first-generation and low-income student concerns.

With No Barriers on the horizon and an increase of socioeconomic diversity on campus, first-generation and low-income student concerns were becoming increasingly pressing. Several administrators formed the “task force” to discuss how to meet these student concerns. This task force was made up of deans; representatives from dining, housing, financial aid, study abroad; and other key administrators. But the task force also knew that it needed student voices to create a fuller understanding of the student experience and the day-to-day problems that they were facing.

Lopez and Hurvitz had met two years earlier in 2011, when Lopez was a student employee and Hurvitz was acting as the interim director of the University Community Service Center. Hurvitz recalls that Lopez and a friend had first approached her because they were frustrated and looking for help. At the time, Lopez didn’t know that administrators had already been meeting. Hurvitz invited Lopez and other SDA students to contribute to the task force’s roundtable discussions.

In the following months, the SDA and the task force met several times. Lopez came prepared. Together, she and Hurvitz had written a survey to see what some of the most pressing concerns were for first-generation and low-income students. Hurvitz administered this survey and Lopez was able to bring the survey results—as well as additional research and her and her peers’ personal experiences—to the table to demonstrate what these needs were.

Through these conversations, SDA members and administrators were able to discuss first-generation and low-income student concerns and begin to work together toward tangible and effective solutions. The SDA brought up several major concerns, including the effect of work-study on a student’s academic performance and the dining hall closing on Saturday nights. Included in these requests was the creation of an office to consolidate support for first-generation and low-income students.

They found that for some concerns, resources were already being provided by the administration—such as emergency funds for college housing given to Resident Heads to mitigate the expense of taking house trips—that students just did not know they had access to.

Other concerns were perhaps more costly to fix but resolvable with the right resources, such as being able to work unpaid internships or finding clothes to wear for interviews.

In particular, students were able to bring to attention more detailed concerns that administrators hadn’t been aware of. “We were thinking on a very big picture scale,” she said, “and not so much in the day-to-day realm.” These concerns were useful to hear because they could also be a lot more easily addressed than some of the larger scale issues that the administration had exclusively been focusing on.

In regards to creating an office specifically for first-generation and low-income students, an important realization for the task force was seeing that up to that point, Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was expected to field a lot of these concerns.

“The reality of the situation is not all of those students were multicultural. When you have a […]white student who [is] from a low-socioeconomic background…they’re not [OMSA’s] target audience,” Hurvitz explained. Even first-generation and low-income students included in OMSA’s target demographic faced unique challenges that OMSA was unprepared to handle.

With that in mind, the task force agreed that the most encompassing solution to these resolvable problems was to create an office in the College dedicated to addressing these issues; more specifically, having a set of dedicated staff that would be consistently working with first-generation and low-income students. The office would eventually be called the Center for College Student Success (CCSS) and would officially open in the fall of 2015.

Administrators appreciated how the SDA approached the issues with the hopes of wanting to work with, and not necessarily against, the administration.

“…They were bringing it rightfully to our attention in a really productive way,” Hurvitz said. Even in the earliest conversations Hurvitz had with Lopez, she remembers the discussions focusing more on how administrators could support and address their concerns than how they were not being met.

According to Jay Ellison, dean of students in the College, cooperation is most successful when students are able to voice their concerns directly to administrators as opposed to other more indirect platforms such as social media.

Lopez, too, believes that having staff allies and being able to communicate with them directly was—and continues to be—one of the most crucial parts to SDA’s success.

“I think oftentimes for students…you come to distrust the administration because they’re kind of seen as your adversaries, and I definitely don’t dismiss that feeling for students, but I think we were able to find people that we could trust,” she said.

Scan 1 copy

Investing in a Solution

The University administration was not entirely unaware of first-generation and low-income students’ issues before the task force was formed. UChicago Promise, a college admissions support program for Chicago Public Schools students, and Chicago Academic Achievement Program (CAAP), a summer pre-orientation program targeted toward first-generation and low-income students, had already began to address these issues since as early as 2008, when CAAP first started.

But strides needed to be made, and the biggest came in the forming of the CCSS office, housed in the West tower of Harper Memorial Library. According to its website, the office’s purpose is to be a resource to help all—but especially first-generation, low-income, or undocumented—students transition into life at the University of Chicago.

It provides a team of advisers who are specifically equipped to address concerns that first-generation or low-income students may face, offers resources such as emergency loans and a free printing program, and gives additional support, such as a mentoring program that matches current first-generation students with alumni who have similar backgrounds.

The CCSS is actively involved with hearing student voices. It has formal ties with the SDA, employs students, and is in the process of building a student advisory board.

“We designed it so that [advisers] had a slightly smaller advising load…so that they would be able to spend more time getting to know the students,” Ellison said. The advisers and the other office staff members were selected to be experts and specialists in addressing particular first-generation and low-income student concerns.

Many CCSS staff members were, and currently still are, involved with CAAP, allowing relationships between first-generation or low-income students and CCSS administration to begin even before students formally matriculate.

In addition, Ellison commented on the physical space of the CCSS.

“Once we got the space we were able to create kind of a destination that students can go hang out, use the printer, get some coffee, meet with their advisor,” Ellison said. This space allows for a setting where students are not only able to voice their concerns, but also be in direct contact with the resources that can address them.

Chloe Glispie, a fourth-year and current student staff member at the CCSS, in particular has seen how the CCSS has contributed significantly to first-generation and low-income students’ sense of belonging.

Glispie, a first-generation student herself, remembers a young first-year student who was speaking to one of the advisers in the CCSS lounge about not knowing what to do about food on Saturdays. The adviser was able to address the concern in the same moment it was raised by directing the student to the Saturday Night Social Club.

This encounter was particularly encouraging not only because a solution was reached so quickly, but also because of the ease the student had in voicing this concern. “When I was a first-year, admitting that I had nothing to eat to an adviser was not something that I would have done,” Glispie said.

Glispie has had a very positive experience working with Devon Moore and Jeremy Wright, director and assistant director of CCSS, respectively. Specifically regarding Wright, Glispie said, “He has an amazing way of relating to the students…. I can definitely see the comfort that they have with him. Whether it’s very silly or very serious, he has a way of getting them to open up and to feel really comfortable talking to him.”

Moore said, “There are a lot of different resources on campus, and I think one of the hardest things is just knowing where to go.” The office helps students know where to start.

Scan copy

“A Perfect Storm”

While student voices were undeniably a part of propelling the CCSS into creation, SDA’s success is also largely from the fact that the University had already begun to prioritize inclusivity for a socioeconomically diverse student body, as evidenced by the pre-existing task force. Even as students at UChicago started to engage in conversations about the CCSS, other universities had also been attempting to improve the experience of first-generation and low-income students.

In 2011, Georgetown established an emergency fund for students in need; in 2011 Stanford established an office to promote diversity and support first-generation students; and in 2014, Northwestern opened up its own office called Student Enrichment Services (SES), which is similar to the CCSS. In retrospect, Lopez believes these trends by peer institutions, particularly the creation of the Northwestern office, served as a catalyst for the University of Chicago.

Northwestern University, like the University of Chicago, has had first-generation and low-income student-related programming before their office, SES, launched: both universities have had special financial aid packages and a strong partnership with QuestBridge. However, according to the SES website, it was not until a group of Quest scholars at Northwestern shared their experiences with administrators in 2012 that steps toward an office were taken. These early conversations led to focus groups and partnerships across students, faculty, and staff members, resulting in the office that opened in the fall of 2014. This process was similar to what was beginning to happen at the University of Chicago.

Another critical change that made the administrative environment more conducive to responding to a push for an office was the appointment of Ellison as the dean of students in the College at the close of the 2013–14 academic year.

“Anytime leadership changes there’s just a new way of thinking about things,” Hurvitz explained. “Priorities shift a little bit.”

Ellison confirmed that as he began his time at the University of Chicago and learned about No Barriers, creating an office to support an increasingly socioeconomically diverse student body was very important to him. Ellison had witnessed a similar financial aid restructuring process at Harvard in 2007, where he had been a member of Harvard College’s Administrative Board for almost 12 years. Harvard announced several new aid initiatives similar to those of No Barriers. While Ellison was not directly involved with creating or implementing the new financial aid plan, he was able to witness the ways that his colleagues needed to adapt to the changing population that the financial aid reforms were bringing to the campus.

The significance of these external factors in affecting administrative change are magnified when SDA’s advocacy efforts are compared to those of other student groups.

For example, Kenzo Esquivel, a representative of UChicago Climate Action Network (UCAN), describes UCAN’s relationship with administration as “necessarily tense,” and writes in an e-mail that “being well-behaved and continuing to sit in meetings with admin has ultimately been an unsuccessful tactic.”

Meanwhile, Campaign of Equitable Policing (CEP) co-coordinator Sofia Butnaru said that it is difficult for the group to even sit down and meet with the administrators that they reach out to. More difficult, in fact, than meeting with politicians and state representatives.

When asked why she thinks the group’s interactions with administration have been so difficult, she explained simply, “I don’t think they’re concerned with what we’re concerned about.”

In contrast, the administration clearly was concerned about the SDA’s concerns. With changes happening nationally and within UChicago’s administration, student requests for an office aligned with other factors to create, in Hurvitz’s words, “a perfect storm.”

“There were more students coming, we were launching this program, we had a new dean of students, and it just all came together at a time that we were able to say, ‘Alright, now is the time to support these students in a different way,’” Hurvitz recalled.

 

The Timeline of Change

Yet amidst positive relationships between the SDA and college staff and important strides that the University’s administration has taken, challenges remain. (For one, the SDA is still unsatisfied with certain dining-related issues).

Even though the CCSS was an important and positive change, both students and administration understand that change is not always immediate. The reality and complexity of administrative change often necessitates that the process is slow.

SDA co-president Kara Moore said, “[SDA] had been pushing for it for years before it happened…. It was definitely more reluctance on the administration’s part,” he said. “I think it takes a lot of force and pulling before they do anything.”

Even though the SDA first requested that the administration create the office in the spring of 2013, it wasn’t until the fall of 2015 that the office officially opened.

This difference in the perception of time is a central point of contention between students and administration when it comes to making change happen.

Hurvitz explained that while the University does have a lot of resources, it also has many competing interests. “While students want to see a sort of quick and immediate response to things, we’re a university that probably would choose to take our time and do something right.”

“The lifespan of a student of four years is a lot different than the lifespan of a 125-year-old university,” Hurvitz said, and she sees great value in investing in changes for incoming students.

Lopez and Glispie both had to accept that their work will help future generations, even if they themselves were not able to directly benefit from the changes.

Having graduated in 2014, Lopez was not able to see the CCSS open during her time at UChicago. Now a few years out of school, she remembered what it was like while she was advocating for these changes as a student.

“You’re so in the environment, you’re so impacted by it. You’re very passionate about it…. You can feel the urgency,” she explained, “and changes are so slow in the University.”

Glispie, as a fourth-year, described her perspective toward the positive changes in the past few years as “bittersweet.” “A part of me wishes I would’ve had that,” Glispie said, “but I’m able to witness it happening, and in some type of way be a part of it, and that feels so much better.”

 

Looking to Future

As the population of first-generation and low-income students increases, awareness of the unique difficulties of their experience is also increasing. In a sort of feedback loop, Moore believes that a greater awareness of these issues, and consequently learning to take the population’s concerns more seriously, is an important catalyst for administrative action, such as the decision to start the CCSS.

Stephanie Diaz, Moore’s co-president of the SDA, attested to the significance of its creation. While she was proud of the work that the SDA is doing, she acknowledged that the CCSS is an important signal that legitimizes the first-generation and low-income experience at the institutional level in addition to having greater funding than a student group.

While the issue of belonging still hasn’t been completely addressed, many students feel hopeful for changes to come, including Glispie.

“Low-income students feel like they have a sense of belonging within one room in Harper,” Glispie said. She believes that in order for first-generation and low-income students to truly feel comfortable here, continued steps need to be made toward redefining what an “academic” looks like.

The cooperative work of students and administration in recent years—from SDA’s early conversations with the task force to their involvement in seeing the CCSS come into being—is now bearing fruit. Even during her own four years at the University, Glispie has been able to witness administrative and cultural changes that are creating a more inclusive environment for first-generation and low-income students. While many students still see pressing concerns that need to be addressed, they also believe that the University is heading in the right direction.

With President Robert Zimmer’s recent announcement of a $100 million addition to the Odyssey Scholarship Program—part of an even larger $350 million investment in the program by the University—the College is set to welcome even more students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds. This gift not only demands active steps toward supporting a more socioeconomically diverse student body, but also ensures that these steps will become increasingly prioritized.

In Glispie’s own words, “It can only get better from here.”