Our project focused on assessing the needs of rural students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor campus. As two Master of Social Work students hailing from Bloomingdale (Laura) and Dowagiac (Ana), two rural towns in Southwest Michigan, we felt very connected to this project from the beginning. We distributed a Qualtrics survey titled “Rural Students Needs Assessment” to help us identify the challenges and needs of rural students at the U-M. The survey was also used as a reference to determine if people would be willing to participate in focus groups and share their experiences on campus as a rural student. The responses on the survey were then utilized as a guide to create the questions and themes introduced during the focus groups that we wanted to explore further. Our first goal was to identify the challenges and needs of this population and to identify some solutions to better assist these students. Once we obtained these findings, we sought to offer recommendations to the University of Michigan, certain departments within the institution who expressed interest in this group of students, such as the College of Literature, Science, and Arts, and with the CEW+, who had previously identified rural students as a nontraditional student identity at the Ann Arbor campus. The ultimate goal was to raise awareness about the challenges that rural students experience and to provide recommendations that could help address the current gaps.
Through the quantitative and qualitative research methods, multiple factors were identified as being challenges and barriers to the academic, social, and emotional wellbeing of rural students on the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor campus. First and foremost, the focus groups relayed to the research what national research has shown: the rural identity is often an invisible one, and therefore ignored, though often not intentionally. It was also found that many of the students have overlapping identities that, when combined with the rural identity, often make navigating their studies and social life on campus difficult. These overlapping identities include, but are not limited to, being a first-generation college student, coming from a low-income background, and having held a paying job during their college education. The focus group participants, as well as respondents in the survey free response section, referenced their low-income identities and challenges often. Though the data does not indicate that many of the rural-identifying students are also low-income by the University’s standards, many of the students expressed that in comparison to their peers on the Ann Arbor campus, they identify as though they are low-income. All ten of the students that participated in the two focus groups identified themselves as working at least one job on campus during their enrolled semesters.
An important find from the survey that was addressed more in the focus groups was the lack of guidance students found from the University in terms of resources to help them adjust to the campus and be academically, socially, and emotionally well. Although students confirmed that these resources are available, they discussed the difficulty in finding them and navigating their services until well after their first semester at the University.
Another highlight found was a feeling of isolation and loneliness that rural students experience in excess compared to their non-rural peers. This was identified as having come from entering the University with no one else from their high school or hometown, being a first-generation student and not having the guidance from their family members that others have, and having this invisible identity that makes it difficult to find other rural students. There were many noted cultural differences between the rural life and living in a city like Ann Arbor, including religious and political differences, gender roles and expectations, and family relationships. As there are currently no designated spaces or organizations on campus for rural students, many had never connected with others who share the identity before this group. The first focus group inspired one of the participants to start a student organization for rural students, and the other nine participants from the first and second focus group all signed up to help in the process.
Next Steps and Library Mentor Support
As of late April, 2020, we are in the process of editing our final report, after receiving feedback from the CEW+ Director Tiffany Mara. After final edits are completed, CEW+ plans to distribute the report to interested units and departments on campus. In May, we are also hoping to present our findings to the CEW+ staff, representatives from LSA, and any other department who is willing and able to join us for a teleconference presentation. These are last minute changes that we are trying to navigate as the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly changed and affected the trajectory of our project. We hope that our report will be distributed among different departments and colleges at the University of Michigan and that positive changes will result from our recommendations.
The partnership with MLibrary has been essential throughout this project. Their funding allowed us to offer incentives for completing our survey and to make the focus groups a possibility. With MLibrary’s funding, qualified students were given the opportunity at the end of the Rural Student Needs Assessment to enter a drawing to win one of twenty-five $25.00 Blue Bucks gift cards. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak causing students to leave campus, the $25.00 was distributed via Venmo and Amazon gift cards, as approved by our mentor. Aside from this, we also made sure to provide lunch and candy to participants during our focus groups. We truly wanted our participants to understand that we appreciated their time for not only completing our survey, but also taking the time to join us for the focus groups. As the rural student population is small and difficult to identify, these incentives were vital for finding participants for our research.
The MLibrary funding has not been the only support that has been essential throughout this project. We are also extremely grateful for our MLibrary mentor, Jo Angela Oehrli, who has provided us with so many resources that benefited our research. We truly appreciate her connecting us to other MLibrary individuals that were able to help us design and distribute our survey, especially as neither of us had previous experience with Qualtrics. She was able to introduce and connect us with Craig Smith, an expert in survey research, who also became a key element in later distributing it to rural students. Prior to diving into this project, we were concerned about how we would even find the rural students on campus, since this is such a hidden and often ignored population. Thankfully her contact had a listserv that we were able to utilize to distribute our survey. Our mentor has also ensured to provide us with lists of resources that she thought could be helpful with our project, as well as provided emotional support during the process. We are extremely appreciative that she always responded to our concerns and questions with such great enthusiasm and referred us to others when needed. Since Covid-19, she has made sure to check in with us and has remained flexible in how we proceed given the circumstances. Our mentor has definitely made us feel more confident in our work and supported us every step of the way. We are very grateful for the MLibrary Mini-Grant program and recommend it highly to all students with a passion project.
Laura Rall and Ana Manzano are MSW candidates at the U-M School of Social Work