The “Michigan difference” is not something that students from poor backgrounds and rural communities often get to truly experience — it seems like students who yearn for it the most are excluded. We go to orientation and hear group leaders and staff laud the University of Michigan. The University really likes to promote a familial feeling and an “everyone belongs here” schtick to new and prospective students. To be fair, this is something that a lot of students experience when they begin their educational journey here, but I, unfortunately, was not one of them.
I did not get to have a normal orientation. As a student from the rural Upper Peninsula who also went to an underperforming high school, I was sentenced to the Summer Bridge Program. Bridge is a two-and-a-half-month-long orientation program where students such as myself take high-intensity classes in a short period of time. We were given talks about imposter syndrome and reminded that we belonged here. Ironically, the entire experience made it feel like we did not. While we were in Bridge, there was a similar program happening on campus — the Comprehensive Studies Program. It was much less intensive and the students got to pick the one class they wanted to take. So while most Bridge students were struggling to get all of their work done by 8 a.m. the next day, CSP students were coming back to their residence hall drunk from a night of partying. This was my first taste of the divisiveness of the University.
As freshman year started, I had a hard time making friends. I was placed in Mary Markley Residence Hall, in an all male hall. I was shy, and very gay, which made it hard to connect with anyone, even my roommate. I constantly heard whispers between my roommate and the other students in my residence hall questioning my sexuality and making uncomfortable remarks. “Do you think he’s gonna try and hit on you?” or “Has he tried to hit on you?” are questions I’ve overheard more than once. This was a very off-putting experience for a gay student, especially after being told that college is more accepting. But, I digress.
When I could not make friends in my residence hall, I tried clubs. I went to Festifall, explored the many tables and talked to a lot of people. I thought that surely I could find a student organization where I would fit in. I applied to seven different clubs ranging from art, music, business and sports, only to get rejections from all seven. I sadly spent my first semester alone.
Along with my loneliness, I struggled with a fear of missing out, or FOMO. I saw everyone around me living the college experience I desperately wanted, even other gay kids. I was constantly trying to figure out what was wrong with me — I was trying everything they told me to do. I left my door open, I tried to get into clubs, yet nothing worked. After a while, I realized the problem was most likely my background.
When I have previously made the argument that poor kids are treated differently at University, I always heard the same rebuttal. People always say “How is someone going to look at you and know you are poor?” In reality, they probably will not be able to. You can argue that things such as the clothes you wear, the headphones you use or the organizations you are a part of can make you stand out, but that is not what I am getting at. When I applied to clubs, I had one thing specifically that kept getting me rejected: my lack of a resumé. Other kids were coming in from wealthy suburbs and excellent school districts — how was I supposed to compete? Some of these kids had all the opportunities they could want in life, while I was trying to survive with what I had. It felt like I was always going to be labeled as the poor kid from the UP that barely got into the University, rather than a valued student who has overcome adversity to make it here.
As much as I wanted to fit in and believe that I was meant to be here, it was hard to do so when I felt judgment from my peers at every turn. Whether it was because I was gay, or because I was poor, I have never been able to feel like I belong. A lot of people have asked why I did not look for support groups or clubs specifically for first-generation college students. I already felt like an outsider, and to me and many other first-generation college students, we just want to fit in. We want to try to move away from and grow from our past, not have to keep living in it.
Jacob Fenlon is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.