The Fall 2017 semester has seen some much-needed campus resource additions. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) students now have access to an emergency grant (receiving up to $1,000 for help with unforeseen expenses like groceries and rent), as well as a campus food pantry headed by Dakota Crowell for those struggling with food insecurity. But so far, many of the students I have talked to about these resources didn’t even know they exist. Are UWM students missing out on available resources designed to make their college experience easier? Very much so, but both UWM students as well as UWM are to blame for this.
Students who could benefit from these resources often don’t actively pursue them. Why? One reason is that in the act of doing so they are admitting that they are in need. These days no one wants to be seen taking what might be perceived as a “hand out”, no matter how much they might need it in some cases. College life is often consumed by social media. We put a version of ourselves on the internet for others to see, but in a way that we’re only portrayed as we wish to be seen. Just as cyber bullies and internet trolls hide behind a screen to judge and socially crucify others for being human, so do the rest of us hide our flaws from their scrutiny. This is also why trolls outnumber supporters in an online debate: supporters don’t want to be dragged onto the stage to have their characters vilified and put on display, so they become bystanders in situations they might react differently to in real life.
These points are important because they carry over into our offline lives. When we do things like seek out resources we need, we do so with an uncomfortable and weary shadow over us. We experience cognitive dissonance because our offline lives stray from reality. It’s not the perfect picture we paint for others on Facebook and Instagram. We can hear the trolls in the back of our thoughts saying things like, “millennials, always looking for a hand out,” or “this special snowflake just wants the easy way out.” It’s thoughts like these that prevent students from pursuing the resources that are designed with them in mind. The campus food pantry? That’s supported by research conducted by UWM’s Student Association which found that 49.4 percent of the 2,267 survey respondents reported having food insecurities. Now apply that to the rest of the 29,000+ campus affiliates. Appalling isn’t it? And to think that these people might not receive the help they need because they don’t want their friends or online onlookers to know that they are struggling in private.
To be sure, students need to know that pursuing resources designed to help them succeed in college merely makes them human, but UWM also needs to step up their game when it comes to student out reach. Where are students getting their information from? Not a campus wide e-mail. Not discreet advertising in the Union Station. Come on UWM, do you really think food insecure students are purchasing meals from the Union Station? UWM, you are spending money on advertising these programs (be it banners or print or laminate), why are you ignoring basic psychographic analyses? Your students are on social media: have a social media strategy, following and relevant posts. They’re in classrooms: professors are a great outreach tool, especially because they are on the forefronts of potentially recognizing a struggling student. They’re at meetings with advisors: advising offices are great places and opportunities to put physical messaging (i.e. flyers and handouts) into student’s hands.
UWM students need a support system (online and offline) that provides an environment adjacent to the new resources being offered. These resources are diamonds in the rough, but much needs to be done to ensure that they’re being seen and extracted.