Students don’t come to UT on equal footing. First-generation students like Lauren Loper have to navigate college without the safety net of solid advice and money that their better-off peers possess in spades. Figuring out how to get involved in extracurricular activities, where to live off-campus after moving into the dorms and finding resources to tackle student issues is hard for most students. But it’s even harder for those who don’t have family or friends who have been to college before.
"I realized very quickly after moving into Jester my freshman year that I was surrounded by people who grew up with more class privilege than me,” UT alumna and student affairs professional Loper wrote in an email. “Regardless of what difficulty a student may face, I find that although there are resources for low-income students, they’re not readily well known.”
Information guides created by students for students could change that dynamic. That's why Loper contributed to the crowdsourced Google document "Being Not-Rich UT." This document, started by computer science senior Eric Lee and American studies junior Lewis Guapo, is an insider's guide to how to actually navigate life at UT as a low or middle income student. The document tells students how to succeed at UT with empathy that goes beyond the dry, informational tone of university websites.
"There's a lot of value by leaving it open and allowing any student who feels very passionate about it to contribute to it," Lee said. “Everyone has their own experience of what they know."
The document readily lists information that isn’t found on official university websites. Students looking for a well-paying part time job might steer away from working in food service jobs on campus because they can't accept tips. The Counseling and Mental Health Center does long-term counseling on a case-by-cases basis for students who can't afford it, the document says.
Looking for housing off campus? "There are low turnover rates for the people that currently live in the S.M.A.R.T. Housing units, so you have to be persistent!" the document notes. When a first-generation student knows how to get a reasonable part-time job or find a student group for people who look like them, it levels the playing field with their moneyed peers.
Students are hungry for this information, and they’re willing to help each other. After the co-founders of the document shared it on Wildfire and Facebook, the document got shared by individual students on individual Facebook timelines, the "UT Longmemes for HORNSy Teens" Facebook page, and the anonymous campus app Wildfire. Within days, it ballooned from nothing to over 35 pages with 15 chapters on topics from "Employment" to "Student Orgs for Low-Income/Marginalized Students." At a university where student needs can be overwhelming, knowledge is the key to surviving and thriving.
“I think that this Google Doc has the opportunity to build comradery among students from a similar background, particularly when students are first coming into the university,” Loper wrote. “I would love to see it continue to grow and potentially manifest into something more.”
University administrators might consider adopting the document’s honest, frank tone in their own conversations with students who face challenges compounded by race, gender identity, and ability. It’s not enough to tell students that resources exist and paint a rosy picture. Instead, students deserve to know the truth — even if it isn’t flattering — so they can navigate this campus in ways that work for them.
Wong is a Plan II and Government senior from McKinney. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @calebawong.
Correction: April 13, 2018
An earlier version of this column misstated the name and major of one of the co-founders of the "Being Not-Rich UT" Google document. He should have been referred to as computer science senior Eric Lee, not chemical engineering senior Eric Liu.