When Lauren Schandevel attended a friend’s birthday party recently, she was both delighted and surprised that someone she had never met before came up and said they knew her.
"This happens to me sometimes and when it does, it’s pretty cool," says the 22-year-old University of Michigan (U-M) public policy student. "These strangers usually say that they know me as the creator of 'the guide.'"
"The guide" is a Google Doc Schandevel started last January that spread like wildfire on the U-M campus. Titled "Being Not-Rich at UM," it was Schandevel’s response to an affordability guide published by the university’s Central Student Government (CSG). In the year since its release it's had wide-ranging impact not only among U-M students and staff, but with universities across the country.
As a first-generation, low-income college student, Schandevel took issue last year with what she felt was tone-deaf advice in CSG's affordability guide. She found the guide pretty comprehensive with a lot of useful information, but she and other students were displeased with a section about saving money.
"With advice like not outsourcing your laundry and not using maid and cooking services, it was just strange to me," Schandevel says. "It felt like there was an assumption that lower-income students were having a hard time affording stuff on campus because they were just not managing their money properly or spending excessively."
It didn’t take her long to decide to start her own guide to offer more inclusive advice on topics including housing, food, finding jobs, and even how to destigmatize being not wealthy.
The guide started out as a simple Google Doc with a title, an introduction, and some subtitles, but it quickly went viral as more and more students who were disappointed with the CSG offering began contributing. Within 48 hours it had grown to 30 pages. Today the document is 250 pages long.
Soon after she released the guide, Schandevel received a message from someone in CSG asking to meet at their office. Attending with a few other Google Doc contributors, Schandevel recalls that both groups were apprehensive. But in the end, everyone was able to agree that the CSG affordability guide was not as sensitive as it could have been to the issue of being low-income on a wealthy campus.
"We realized that we could work together to not only make the guide better, but also to come up with real solutions to campus affordability," she says.
Things took another positive turn when CSG elections happened and the new members began to prioritize affordability. CSG also invited Schandevel to chair its Affordability Task Force.
"It’s really become a collaborative relationship between myself and the student government to prioritize the issue," she says.
In the last year, Schandevel has also been working with U-M's Office of New Student Programs to develop a more professional version of the guide, with an eye toward incorporating it into the office's orientation programming and using it as a resource for new students.
"We’ve combed through the guide, keeping stuff, fact-checking stuff, and deleting stuff, to make it something that the university can present to new students as they’re coming in," she says.
Schandevel notes that meeting with the Office of New Student Programs was an interesting contrast to meeting with CSG.
"The central student government created their guide and the university really had nothing to do with it, but a lot of the university’s policies sort of embodied what that guide was all about," she says.
In an initial meeting, Schandevel was dismayed when one U-M staffer said they don’t use the term "low-income student." She realized then that the university had an unspoken policy of not naming economic causes for some students’ inability to afford things.
But fortunately, in the course of furthering her cause and through personal interactions, Schandevel has also found U-M staffers who are sensitive to the challenges of not-rich students. One area of her guide that continues to grow is a section called Mentors. Students can find a list of teachers, many of whom were first-generation low-income students themselves, who can provide support.
One of these teachers is Dwight Lang, a sociology lecturer and the faculty adviser to the student group First-Generation College Students @ Michigan since 2008. Lang contributed his contact information to Schandevel’s guide last year.
"The guide has raised awareness regarding social class diversity on campus. This is good for students, both those who are economically distressed and those who receive all the money they need and want from parents," he says.
He also believes the document has been beneficial to U-M staff because, in the past, too many university employees assumed that nearly all students are middle-class.
"The guide has been a building block in the sense that middle- and upper-middle-class faculty, staff, and students are slowly but surely understanding the complexities of social class difference and inequality at U-M, in Michigan, and across the nation," Lang says.
Another big supporter of both the guide and Schandevel is 21-year-old Griffin St. Onge. The graduating senior is one of Schandevel’s close friends and has contributed significantly to "Being Not-Rich at UM". Along with Schandevel, St. Onge co-chairs a new student organization called Affordable Michigan (originally named the Michigan Affordability and Advocacy Coalition).
The two started the organization shortly after the guide was released. Their goal is to shine a light on advocacy issues that primarily affect low-income students.
St. Onge says she and Schandevel realized that while there are some great existing resources and support systems that the guide discusses, other resources have yet to be implemented or created.
"Our work takes different forms, from being a support network, to connecting people with resources when we can, to raising awareness of issues, and to actively advocating for change," St. Onge says.
For example, she cites their partnership with The Michigan Daily on an issue that published students' testimonies of their experiences and overall difficulties with unpaid internships.
One of Affordable Michigan's current focus areas is how U-M has affected area housing.
"We've been meeting with other community groups and Central Student Government about the potential of reinstating a tenants' union that is inclusive to all tenants impacted by the university's presence," St. Onge says.
Both Schandevel and St. Onge have been touched by the growing sense of kinship that has emerged in the wake of the document, both locally and across the nation. So far, at least nine other schools have devised a similar guide or have one in the works.
"I have students from other schools reaching out through Facebook and email, so we ended up creating a doc called Being Not-Rich DIY as an offshoot how-to," Schandevel says.
A year ago, Schandevel never imagined her guide would generate so much community and conversation, on campus or off.
"At the end of the day, the guide tells an honest story about low-income students that is for, and by, low-income students," she says. "And the message that students and administrations are getting from it is that it’s important to keep talking about prioritizing affordability."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently in based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.