Last week, Central Student Government unanimously passed a resolution that provides services to receive free graduation photos and gowns for low-income graduating seniors at the University of Michigan. The initiative was spearheaded by Social Work student Lawrielle West and LSA senior Hoai An Pham, and supported by former CSG president Anushka Sarkar, an LSA senior.
The initial idea was proposed by West, who found offering free graduation photos to both students of color and students of low socioeconomic status would offer additional support to marginalized communities on campus, especially due to the income disparity at the University.
“In understanding how UM is currently a school with less than 4% black student enrollment and a microcosm of the environment that we have nationwide, there is no denying that systemic oppressions vastly change the student experience that marginalized students have,” West and Pham wrote in an email interview.
They highlighted the difficulties marginalized students face on the largely white and upper-class campus, ranging from issues as explicit as racial bias incidents and hate crimes, to implicit microaggressions and all the expenses that go into the graduation process.
“Years of systemic oppression as a result of the white supremacist system we have in America have also led to students of color being more likely to be unable to pay for these extra expenses,” they wrote. “The very homogeneously white and privileged student population at UM who can afford these ‘extras’ often leads to the silencing of people who cannot.”
Pham and West explained though they are not able to fix the institutional problem of the wealth gap on campus, small steps in the right direction in acknowledging and aiding students who face financial struggles validates the experiences of these students.
“When there are barriers such as cost to these photos, then not only have graduating low income students and students of color had to fight harder in order to graduate, but then they are excluded from typical celebrations of this graduation for the very reasons that they struggled in the first place,” they wrote. “At a University that strives for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, acknowledging the ways in which a lack of DEI has manifested itself into every aspect of our University life is essential in attempts to ameliorate these issues.”
Photo sessions were held throughout the weekend, accessible to all students who signed up on an online form. Art & Design senior Alison Burnell had her graduation photos taken Sunday, and explained the importance of these types of initiatives.
“Opportunities that aren’t necessary but are considered an integral part of the experience college students have, like senior portraits, aren’t always financially within reach — particularly for first-generation college students," Burnell said. "First-generation students often don’t receive familial contributions to pay for college, and initiatives like these provide small moments of financial relief, without a doubt.”