Screenshot of ACUM panel event. Courtesy of Chen Lyu Buy this photo.

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The Advising Council at the University of Michigan (ACUM) Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee held a panel event Wednesday highlighting the challenges and strengths of rural students on campus. The event attracted a diverse audience, including prospective students from rural communities, admissions officers and faculty members across three campuses. 

Megan Taylor, an academic advisor in the College of Engineering and member of the national leadership team of National Association for College Admission Counseling Rural and Small Town Special Interest Group, facilitated the event. Drawing from her own experience as a rural student, Taylor said she organized the event to combat prevailing narratives of a divide between urban and rural communities.

“There’s been a lot of narratives from the media about a rural-urban divide. … I really like to push back against that narrative,” Taylor said. “Increasingly over the years, a lot of the challenges and issues I see students in rural communities face are quite similar to (those) that we might see in urban communities as well.”

At the University of Michigan, rural students are underrepresented on campus. Approximately one in five Michigan students attends a rural school, but only 8.7% of University of Michigan students come from a rural community. 

Taylor said rural students possess unique qualities due to their experiences living near nature and wildlife. LSA sophomore Kian McDonough, who grew up in Skandia, Michigan and is majoring in Program in the Environment, demonstrated how proximity to nature motivated his academic pursuit. 

“Growing up in a rural space, I was always doing outdoor recreation, canoeing and backpacking,” McDonough said. “I think that has really sparked an intimate connection with the environment.”

For University alum Zoe Anderson, first-year medical student at the University of Nevada from Bishop, Cali., the difference between her rural high school and the large University with a large academic curriculum pushed her to value education more than her peers. 

“I was very nervous and apprehensive coming to U of M knowing the privilege and also how rigorous academics are, so coming from Bishop I already had those nerves that caused me to be really dedicated,” Anderson said. “That’s just made the world of difference coming to medical school because I feel so prepared since I really took my education incredibly seriously.”

Students on the panel also discussed academic challenges and cultural stigmas through individual stories, illuminating the need to increase rural representation on campus.

Engineering freshman Sierra Hendrickson, from Negaunee, Mich, described the social challenges she faced at the University coming from a small and tight-knit community.

“One of the main things I was concerned about when I was already planning to come to Michigan on a social side was making friends on this big scale,” Hendrickson said. “Coming from a rural area, I had the same group of friends from elementary school. I haven’t had to do (make friends) since I was like five years old.”

While the University has a broad array of resources, McDonough said students coming in with less academic and extracurricular preparation might feel at the “bottom of the list,” which can  stifle their experiences. 

“College is fundamentally a place to learn new things, but coming from a small place can feel like you’re behind a lot of students, and it can feel really intimidating to try to learn something new,” McDonough said. “So I think (the University should) really focus on trying to get students opportunities to try out things at any level if they’re coming in with nothing.”

Suzannah Bretz, a former senior admission counselor at the University, unpacked some of the stigma of college by recounting some of her prospective students’ experiences such as applying for financial aid, free campus tours and other University-provided resources. 

“I would always ask students, ‘what have you heard about Michigan?’ and without fail, three big things came up,” Bretz said. “Michigan was expensive, Michigan was big, and Michigan was hard, so we talked about the financial aid process and Go Blue Guarantee. Sometimes they (were) afraid to apply because they didn’t know anyone in Michigan or how to be successful, so we talked about free tutoring and office hours. These things that students from more resourced backgrounds might have heard of can be foreign concepts for our (rural) residents sometimes.”

Taylor also discussed the Road Scholars program, which provides an opportunity for faculty members across all three campuses to tour the diverse landscapes and communities in Michigan and fosters a mutual link between the University and the rural communities it serves.

“Faculty can apply to be a part of it and actually go around the state of Michigan and learn about different communities and different types of  environments in high schools,” Taylor said. “I think that is so valuable for people to really know where your students are coming from and what their backgrounds are.”

A group of high school students from an Advanced Placement Biology class in Benzie, Mich, also attended the meeting. In an email obtained by The Michigan Daily, the students wrote about their takeaways from this event.

During the Question & Answer session, panelists commented on the benefits and challenges of the diversity and inclusion discourse both on campus and at home. They concurred the lack of cultural diversity in their hometown was part of the reason they were excited about the college experience. Taylor said she looks forward to students from rural areas to be exposed to new ideas and experiences in a large college environment. 

“(When I came to college) I had so many blind spots, I was so embarrassed about how little I knew about topics related to being an inclusive person,” Taylor said. “I have been amazed to see over the years, as an admissions counselor, that so many students from rural communities write in their essays that they can’t wait to come to Michigan and learn more and be exposed to more people.”

Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at lyuch@umich.edu.