The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.

When the University of Michigan urged its students to return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Education junior Nicole Afton moved back home to Kent City, Mich., a rural town with limited access to Wi-Fi and consequently, reduced access to remote learning. 

“Kent City is a super rural town, so I’m really limited in Wi-Fi options, and I didn’t have Wi-Fi at my house,” Afton said. “I had to buy Wi-Fi myself. I am also unemployed from my jobs. I have two, and I can’t work at either of them because they’re closed, so it was a financial struggle for me to figure out how I was going to buy Wi-Fi at home.”

Like Afton, many students from low-income families or rural areas returned home with more challenges than when living on campus. Purchasing reliable access to the internet without a source of income from on-campus jobs was at the forefront of many students’ struggles.

As a result, companies like Comcast are providing free Wi-Fi networks across the nation for low-income families trying to work from home. However, students from rural areas still face connection issues.

“Comcast, Spectrum, all of those providers were all offering free, and I called them and got denied because Kent City is so rural,” Afton said. “So I tried their options, and I was denied because where I live is in the middle of nowhere.” 

Gail Gibson is the director of the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program, which supports first-generation college students who have significant financial need. According to Gibson, about one-third of the students in the program are from rural areas.

“Our rural students are from some of the state’s smallest towns, most remote corners,” Gibson said. “And these rural students are facing … really distinct challenges that sometimes I think are overlooked.” 

Gibson said the program recognizes how the pandemic has highlighted the disparities existing among students from different backgrounds, particularly calling attention to the various challenges students are facing away from campus.

“It is clear that students are experiencing this crisis in really uneven ways based on where they are from, family income, family’s educational attainment,” Gibson said. “And students, while they’re on campus with peers in Michigan, may be able to bridge those divides in some ways. They’re in the same classes or in the same residence halls. Now, they have returned home to places that look really different from some of their peers’ hometowns and really different from their life in Ann Arbor.”

LSA sophomore Spencer Wood is from Morrice, Mich., a small village surrounded by farmland. He described some of the challenges with learning remotely while surrounded by limited social interaction.

“I live right in the middle of East Lansing and Flint, but it’s all farm,” Wood said. “It’s really weird taking classes because I study Communication and Media, looking into big metropolitan areas and how they communicate and broadcast to them. Meanwhile, there’s not anybody near me.”

Access to technology is another major concern for students from low-income families or rural areas. In response, the University launched the LSA Laptop Loan program in 2014 as a four-year pilot program for low-income LSA students to borrow a university-owned MacBook Air through their years as an undergraduate student.

Recently, the program was renamed to Michigan Undergraduate Laptop Program and is managed by the Office of Enrollment Management. As of January 2020, the program will be providing laptops free of charge to selected incoming students who have been identified by the Office of Financial Aid.

Ann Hower, director of the Office of New Student Programs, spoke to The Daily about what led to the decision to offer the laptops for free. 

“This is about diversity, equity and inclusion,” Hower said. “So there was a lot of care taken to make sure that the laptop itself looked like any other laptop. It’s a MacBook Air, it comes out of the box from Apple, it looks just the same. So this is really about having students feel like this is a laptop and it’s theirs.” 

The decision to allow students to keep their laptops was announced amid the transition to remote learning. This lessened the burden many rural and low-income students felt with continuing the semester at home.

“For our current setting, it was beyond helpful,” Wood said. “I don’t think I would be able to really engage in classes the way I am, because we have the one home computer that we have two people working from home on already. And that’s already tough enough. So me trying to do a full course load on that as well, I don't know how that would have gone.”

Gibson noted she is concerned some first-year students from rural areas may not return in the fall. With students returning home to greater responsibilities, there is a challenge for them to complete the semester successfully, Gibson said. 

“We are concerned and closely tracking questions about persistence,” Gibson said. “That is, will students return in the fall, especially first-year students who this is how their year is ending. And we are concerned about how students complete this term successfully while they have returned home to places where they may have to juggle, for instance, care for siblings, care for older family members or even return to sort of agriculture work in a rural area.”

Gibson said a new, separate program called the U.P. Scholars Program will be launching in Fall 2020. This program will support students specifically from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who may have high financial need.

“We are working with high school students right now in some of the most remote parts of Michigan, who are having to make really complicated decisions about college-going without given access to their high school counselors or peers,” Gibson said.

Hower said plans for this summer’s online orientation for first-year and transfer students are in the works. To combat the digital challenges students from rural or low-income families are experiencing, Hower said the program plans to accommodate students based on individual needs.

“We’re going to send out the postcard and have students contact us if they think they are going to have any barriers to being able to engage,” Hower said. “We don't want anybody to be anxious about this — (we’re) kind of saying ‘we got you covered.’”

With a few weeks remaining in the semester, one thing remains clear: The pandemic has exposed many of the differences existing between students. Gibson said the University’s responses to these differences will shape the experiences of many to come.

“I think this is a test for many students,” Gibson said. “This is a test for the University about how it responds in order to make sure that those students with the fewest resources still have the most successful completion to this school year as possible.”

Reporter Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu. 

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Gail Gibson. The quote was actually said by Ann Hower.

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