Student of the Year 2019: Somya Bhagwagar
When Somya Bhagwagar was little, her father gifted her a book anthologizing the most beautiful places to travel in the world. She would flip through the pages and beg her parents to take her to those destinations, but instead, her mother would drive her to the farmers market 20 minutes from her home. There, Bhagwagar’s mother taught her to travel mentally through strangers’ stories.
“We would just talk to people and listen to their stories,” Bhagwagar said. “I guess we developed this hobby of ‘people understanding,’ which is taking people watching to the next level.”
When Bhagwagar got to the University of Michigan, she picked up photography and combined it with her conversation skills to found Students of UMich, a Humans of New York-inspired Instagram account that now has approximately 4,500 followers. Bhagwagar chooses students randomly, usually finding them on the Diag, and creates each post herself.
Growing up in Saginaw, a city she said is politically diverse and sometimes divisive in its opinions, Bhagwagar learned to understand political differences and why people disagree. She began to appreciate getting every piece of information of a story, saying even missing the tiniest bit of a story can completely change a narrative.
“That’s also why I created this account,” she said. “Because I want it to be something where you can get the whole perspective on everything and you can get the different political views and stories and lives and things like that.”
A self-proclaimed nerd for social media algorithms and data, Bhagwagar enjoys checking and influencing her Instagram filter bubbles — algorithms that can isolate the content users see based on what they engage with online — and monitoring the websites to which Facebook has sold her information. While filter bubbles could seem innocuous on the surface, Bhagwagar gave a hypothetical example of why they can be detrimental to how people’s ideological views are shaped.
“So (hypothetically), if they see I’m a liberal, then they’re going to keep sending me liberal things, right? And then I don’t get to hear the other perspective and it becomes more like an echo chamber,” Bhagwagar said. “So if I keep hearing more and more liberal things I’ll become more polarized to the liberal methodology and political views. That’s a whole piece of the entire world that you’re lacking and you’re missing this entire story.”
Under the advice of Senior Multimedia Producer Joseph Xu in the College of Engineering's Office of Communications and Marketing, Bhagwagar also developed #HerEngineering, a photography project illustrating the struggles women in engineering face. Bhagwagar credits Xu with teaching her valuable lessons in storytelling, particularly that if she was not both physically and mentally close to an interviewee, she would not get a great story from them.
“There was a point in time with one of the people in the interview, I put down the camera to give her some space,” Bhagwagar said. “And he was like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing that? This is the emotion, this is what you want to capture.’”
Bhagwagar’s mission of spreading inclusivity on campus did not stop with Students of UMich and #HerEngineering. She is also the co-president of the Michigan Muscle Club and helped the club reach an almost even ratio of men to women. Bhagwagar originally had no interest in joining MMC, as there were no other women in the club and she disliked the “gym bro” culture members exuded. But when her now co-president Steve Zhou encouraged Bhagwagar to change the club’s culture and board positions opened up, she decided to apply and help them become a community focused on inclusivity in addition to fitness.
“It was a lot of changing the vibe,” Bhagwagar said. “And there were some people that were slow with it and some people that were really, really on board, like Steve was on board the entire time. But it was just like they had never been exposed to some radical idea of inclusivity and feminism and things like that.”
Bhagwagar helped MMC change their marketing strategy, steering the club to become inclusive of all identities and encouraging a mentor-mentee aspect for new members. In all of her projects, hearing the perspectives of all groups is the mission Bhagwagar emphasizes.
“In storytelling, if you’re missing one piece of a story, you have a totally different perspective,” Bhagwagar said. “So even the absolute smallest piece could have a totally new perspective on life.”