Within the past two months, potential University of Michigan students may have received life-changing news — they’ve been accepted. The camera is propped and ready to capture the burst of maize and blue confetti across the screen, making the perfect reaction video to show to Grandma or TikTok.
Tearing through the envelope and revealing a sealed document with laser copied signatures is the ultimate form of validation, and yes, it is worth the wait. Whether you beg your mom to refrain from posting the news on Facebook, or you immediately change your Instagram bio to tout your new allegiance, take caution. There is not enough confetti to go around nor to cover the cloud of potential resentment that may ensue, for acceptance from a university is often accompanied by judgment from those who sit in bitterness. But chin up — nothing can take away the pride you feel in yourself and your school. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.
Future University of Michigan students have just been accepted to a shell of a school, modified by a global pandemic with side effects that confine you to the computer screen. Unfortunately, the beginning of your journey that was supposed to begin wading through the Michigan League fountain and wandering across campus will likely be replaced with computer fatigue and the search to find Zoom links. Regardless of where you find yourself, what binds every Wolverine together is the fact that we have earned the ability to walk down the same educational path, even if you venture from no further than your childhood bedroom to the kitchen and back.
I want to emphasize to students that you have earned your rightful place, for it says and will continue to say in our letters that “once you become a Wolverine, you will always be distinguished by this achievement.” While this statement is true, the sentence that directly follows it is not. We are told that “(our) academic and personal success are excellent preparation for the exciting challenges of personal life” but within my short three months on campus, the challenges I faced were not exciting and I was most certainly not prepared — and neither were many other women entering Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
It is important to know that in order to become one of the “Leaders and the Best,” you must first confront challenges that are not marked with caution tape nor listed as potential dangers in the paragraphs of your acceptance letter. With that, here is my anecdotal guidebook and caution warning.
On my first day of school as a college student, I sat at a table in Ross, in awe of the skylit ceilings and multicolored carpet that I was witnessing. However, these admirable feelings of acceptance and belonging were very short-lived. Opening the Zoom call for my calculus class ushered in almost all-male names on the tiny, muted boxes. As a girl who had never taken calculus before, the only comfort I had was knowing that I could turn my camera off in the event I started crying, as I certainly lacked confidence in my ability to define a derivative or describe what an integral does.
The fear of entering a filled lecture hall with unknown faces may have been minimized, but it was replaced with screens that your peers can toggle through bearing judgment, imposing an inescapable feeling of the outside gaze. One thing that is carried from the physical classroom to a virtual one is the presence of gender-based discrimination, something women may anticipate but cannot prepare for. Little did I know that the notorious building I was in, sitting beautifully still in the background, would spur a semester’s worth of sexist stereotypes made known to me behind a screen.
One male student asked me directly if I had been using an image of the Ross building as my virtual background because he did not think that seats were available to “just anyone” on campus. This backhanded question set the tone for group work over the following 13 weeks. My new behind-the-screen adversary refrained from calling me by my name, inquired about my grades, rejected my math contributions and secretly edited my work on group assignments. Perhaps it was inconceivable that a woman could be capable of admittance to one of the nation’s top business programs without ever taking a calculus class before; I felt as though I had to prove to him that my admission into the University and my presence in the Zoom call was indeed legitimate and no less valuable than his own admission. If grit was a tangible object, I would make sure that it stood prominent in my virtual background.
Forty-one percent of the Ross BBA program student makeup is held by women, yet it is within this 9% imbalance where inequity takes new forms. My experiences are a result of a deeper issue taking root in quantitative courses, where, according to Harvard Business Review’s study on Ross, women on average score 11% of a standard deviation less than men due to the gender stereotypes that infiltrate the classroom and impact motivation and interest. It is not a disparity in male and female academic aptitudes or family background — it is the academic environment students are immersed in.
Women are entering business programs equally as qualified, with the test scores and experience to show for it, but it is still not enough. Robin Ely, Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community at Harvard Business School, says, “forms of gender bias aren’t the result of conscious, discriminatory intent; rather, they arise from a million micro-interactions, cultural assumptions, and historic ways of doing business that still carry the imprint of our history of gender hierarchy.” It is only through community-wide discussion that this problem can be addressed, and therefore this is my personal contribution to the campus and nationwide issue.
No matter your background, in the physical and virtual sense, be confident in yourself and your capabilities, for what cannot be accurately captured on camera is the personal mission that puts you on to this path — a path that has unexpected roadblocks in the form of rude classmates, unengaged professors or even global pandemics. But know that it is here that you are bound to find your lifelong friends and other women that are experiencing the same things that you are. Here, you will learn new things about yourself that your time in high school could not teach you. This and much more is an unmentioned component in our acceptance letters that outweighs the lack of caution for the unexciting challenges you will face.
To all the new freshmen making haste in putting down your enrollment deposits and designing your dorm rooms, know that your place and your people are somewhere in Ann Arbor. Hold on tight to your entry ticket.
Julia Maloney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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