READefine Funding

In IDP 316 - Portfolio by Laura Lilienkamp

A prototype to inspire and learn, Deep Dive 3

How do we develop empathy?

Smith College is the fourth most economically diverse college in the US and about 70% of student body is on financial aid. But paying for college is more expensive than tuition, room and board costs. There are other major expenses like textbooks and unpredictable emergency expenses. For medical, academic and other reasons, many students end up seeking additional funding from the college during their time at Smith.

The process of applying for funding is far from straightforward. There many different funding pools, many types of applications and many restrictions on the funds available. Some have online applications while some require students to go to College Hall in person to pick up forms and meet with administrators.

Jennifer Walters, the Associate Dean of the College for Community Life and the Dean of Religious Life came to the Design Thinking Studio with a question about who has access to Smith’s financial resources and the equitable distribution of these funds.

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In order to develop empathy and target our potential users, we talked to students with greatest financial need, students who had applied the funding but from high socioeconomic backgrounds, administrators who care about their students’ well-being and are willing to the extra mile to help students and other administrators who believe in meritocracy and blame students for their inability to navigate the complex funding system.

Here is what they said :

From students:

“I don’t know if students in need get [funding]. The whole decision making process is not transparent for both faculty and students.”

“The one time they [Smith] paid for anything was discovery weekend”

“they gifted me with my debt, they gifted me with my life[…]excuse me i’ve been oppressed, fuck all you all”

From an administrator:

“If you know how to work the system you get the funds – some students take advantage of it, and there are some who wouldn’t dream of asking for help even though they need it desperately, and I wish they would”

“How do I know that they don’t need it?”

“There could be students from families that aren’t on aid but their families are strapped from paying for school so I don’t think that’s fair”

“I don’t ask people about their financial aid, it’s none of my business”

From a different administrator:

“What a world we live in that I have to fund food for a family”

“Smith is a very generous institution”

“Being grateful is a good thing to practice”

“Oh, people cry in here all the time, why do you think I have kleenex? i listen, what can you do?”

“I’m not in favor of a free lunch, if you want to drive you should pay something”

Susan Zachary

Susan Zachary is the assistant to the Dean of the College and also described the “go-to” person for students who are seeking emergency funding both by Dean Walters and by students. In our interview, she explained what different types of funding exist and what qualifications students need to have in order to apply for them. It helped us get a sense of just how complicated and inaccessible the funding application process is. Susan Zachary also talked about the difficulty of making sure that students with the most financial need have access to funding while trying to make sure that students’ dignity is maintained. She trusts that if a student is coming to her for help that they really do need it. But she also acknowledges that there are some students with great financial need that don’t apply for funding and that students who maybe have less need but can navigate the system often end up with the limited funding from the Student Aid Society and other such funding pools.

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Margaret Bruzelius
Talking to Margaret Bruzelius was a very important part of our project process. Laura and Shira interviewed Margaret and were able to receive a different perspective from the administrators. She explained the Roth Child fund that she has control over, and told us about the interactions she has with students seeking funding. She didn’t agree with the idea that the less money you have, the harder it is for you to access funds. She talked about the importance of centralizing funding sources on campus to make it easier for both students, and faculty. Margaret Bruzelius demonstrated more layers to the problem of Smith funding by demonstrating the massive disconnect between a lack of understanding of classism and the ways that Smith perpetuates it, accompanied with the reality of poor and low-income students who deal with these consequences on a daily basis.

Student S 

Talking to student S made us realize how vital transparency is in this funding process. S did not know this funding was invented to serve students with greatest need. Her professor told her she is eligible to apply. And that’s how this funding being publicised—not by public channel, most people don’t know it exists. The administrators mean to keep it low-key, so students in need can get them. However, they don’t want to reject any student, and looking into students’ Financial Aids situation is not what they want to do. In this way, students like S, even not have FA still apply for the book funding because she did not know other students might not get it as the whole process is not transparent for both students and faculty. Thus, we add a section with friendly reminder said be mindful of your financial background before you apply. Also, based on our talk with S, we chose to work on the  transparency of the new funding system.

Student X

Our interview with X was our first interview with a potential user. They had gone through the book funding system the previous semester, and told us how convoluted and confusing it was had been, including going to one office, being told to go to a different one, and ending up back at the original one. They also mentioned the counter-intuitive nature of funding at Smith, where funds are all in different offices, even though one might think that student funding could be found in the financial aid office.  In our interview with X, we started talking, not only about funding at Smith, but also about classism. They talked about removing the idea of poor people being “disorganized,” and that poor students are sometimes forced into a place of panic because of their financial situation, and that is very different from being “disorganized”. X talked about distrusting Smith as an institution run like a corporation, with the goal of making money.

They also talked about how students with in situations of poverty should have priority in funding, and that working class and students coming from other income levels should also have access to funding sources, and how grants, rather than loans should be given for funding. They also talked about the silence about class on campus.

After our team talked to X, we realized that we needed to confront our own class background, and proceeded to (accidentally) prototype money talks.

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Student C

C explained that they had only bought 1-3 books ever since coming to Smith. They are a SWAG major, and classes usually required 4-6 books at around $10 a book. They didn’t use book funding because they felt that, in general, other people needed it more than they did and that it might be difficult to obtain. They also disliked the “hiddenness” of funding, and said that they didn’t know funding existed for books their first year, and that a friend of theirs went without a winter coat, not realizing that there is funding to help with that.

C gave us a lot of feedback on our different prototypes. They mentioned that the monopoly game idea could be tokenizing of student’s experiences and useful for wealthy students, but not very useful for poor and low-income students. They also said that while our money talks idea would be great if done well, it would also have to be developed a lot to not be harmful, and their gut instinct was that it made them nervous. C liked the idea of micro-loans, more textbooks on reserve, and making college hall more friendly (quote, it’s like financial aid people are “just gods that smite poor people all day [laugh]”). In the ideal world, a copy of important textbooks would be given to each student who needed them at the beginning of each class.

Based on our interviews, we found major tensions in the current system involves multiple stakeholders.

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Smith funding maze

When we went to test out the existing textbook funding application, we were confused to say the least. The funding options for traditional domestic students, international students and Ada Comstock scholars are all different. There were many other factors that determined which type of funding you could apply for including if you were on financial aid, if you were going to a conference with an student organization or alone, if you had exhausted certain funding options before and many other parameters. The Smith Funding grid that the college has on their funding website has links that don’t actually take you directly to that form. Only after going through three or four more web pages do you get to the form you were looking for. It was clear that a more user-friendly solution was necessary.

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Define our POV

After interviews with potential users, we came up with our point of view statement: Students who have the greatest financial need need transparency, dignity and efficiency in a college that is not class aware.

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While prototyping, we realized that we needed to expand our questions beyond specific concerns about funding to larger conversations about money and class at Smith.

Taking risks – prototyping!

We took many intellectual risks while prototyping. Instead of one “Prototype to Learn” and another “Prototype to Inspire,” we created a set of five prototypes. Our prototyping ideas included:

A Rube Goldberg ball visualization

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Our first prototype is a ball visualizing the funding process. Later, we use step-by-step funding page to save users time and energy in this process, but they are ultimately same idea. This is designed for students to navigate themselves in this confusing process as  different fundings have various restraints. Instead of filling out form (boring, annoying and put unnecessary stress on lots of in-need students), students can easily find their funds by this metaphor of ball. We want to reduce students’ stress levels as they deserve every resources on campus with dignity.

a Smith monopoly game

One of our other prototypes was a Smith monopoly game where students would navigate finances at Smith as a character in a board game. We created chance cards to show how unforeseen emergencies can come up on top of everyday expenses.  While talking to users, we realized that this was a good way to get financially privileged students to start conversations about combatting classism and how to be an ally to those with less class privilege, but it could be a difficult experience for a student who lives through the situations presented in the game.

Untitled drawing (7)a “money talks” conversation guide

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Throughout the project, we realized that as teammates we didn’t know anything about each other’s class backgrounds. We realized that before we felt comfortable proceeding with any of our project, we needed to learn about where we were actually coming from.  So one day during class, the four of us sat down and each of us spoke for seven minutes about our money stories. After this exercise, we realized that this conversation served as an important prototype for how to create spaces for students to talk about their money stories and figure out how to work against classism together.

a micro-loan program for the Smith community

We wanted to look at how money could be redistributed based on the diversity in class background of students at Smith. Using this app, wealthy students would be able to give a loan to students who needed it anonymously, and would be able to decide if they needed this money within six months, one year, or not at all. Students who needed this money would be able to decide if they thought they could give it back in six months, one year, or not at all. This system would also be a good work-around to the current reimbursement system at Smith.

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a satirical wild goose chase website 

To illustrate how ridiculous and convoluted the Smith funding process is, one of our later prototypes was a satirical wild goose chase website. It provided a step-by-step online platform to help students find which funding pool they should apply to within a choose your own adventure style platform. Students would be “on a wild goose chase” and once they find their funding source they arrive at a screen saying they’ve “found their goose” and has a link to the appropriate form or a person to contact.  This was a user-friendly platform, but wasn’t satirical in a way that made sense for the Smith community.
Our final prototype was a combination of many of these ideas.

We created an online platform to provide resources about classism in general as well as a step-by-step form to find the funding source you need easily. It provides a way of navigating the current funding system but also opens up conversations about money and inequality in general. The “flow charts” we created illustrate just how convoluted the current funding system to hopefully prompt discussions for a more streamlined funding application process.

You can find our final prototype at this address: http://readefine.my-free.website/

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Untitled drawing (10)Combating Classism

Throughout the process of making our website, one of the extreme users was wealthy students. Although the site is designed to help students with financial need find funding, a necessary part of this process is engaging wealthy students and mobilizing action on their part in order to use their money to work against classism. These resources are meant to be as accessible as possible to the website users by providing definitions and not assuming a certain base of knowledge. This page was also intentionally meant to push wealthy students into action and out of being complicit with wealth.

Another extreme user of our website was faculty and professors. The Faculty page served to provide professors with examples of how to make their classrooms more accessible to people of all class backgrounds. By giving examples of past classes that have avoided high textbook costs in a variety of different ways, this page is supposed to highlight the ways that professors can be, and need to be apart of the process of disrupting the classist system that is in place now.

Lastly, this website combats classism through the Money Mentor program. Money mentors are students who have been through the Smith funding maze and have personal insights and support to offer to new students. Being a Money Mentor is a paid position. The website includes a thorough application to be a Money Mentor, and resources for students looking to receive support from a Money Mentor.
We tested our prototype on various users, and edited the website based on their feedback. We will continue to update our website and improve our design in the coming months.

Team Dynamics

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Every person contributed to the final project in a different way. Zara recorded all the audio clips and Shira compiled the footage for the video. Yi set up the website and Laura created the step-by-step funding tour. We worked pretty seamlessly together during this deep dive. We fed off of each other’s energy and were able to explore conflicting ideas in a way that made everyone feel heard. Overall, I think we created something exciting and useful for the Smith community. (Zara)

We struggled with time management and moving through challenges that temporarily stumped us. However, someone was always there with energy and ideas to push us into action. Our different personalities and skill sets really complimented each other throughout the project, and ultimately, we surprised ourselves by creating something that we were all very excited about and proud of. (Shira)

One advantage/problem of our group is that we have too many ideas! Narrowing them down was difficult, but giving up prototype we devoted so much time on is also hard. In addition, this topic is very personal, challenging, class-related. I end up doing lots of literature review of critical political theory to contribute more to our group discussion. So I think, in this project, all of us learn so much from the depth and complexity of this project. I also feel pressured when I interview our users as I’m urge to do something to change the system, and the social justice layer of it is heavy. But we made a great team together! If it’s not this group of lovely people, I can see myself creating this meaningful project! We are understanding, encouraging and just fabulous!   (Yi)

I think our team struggled so much because we cared so deeply about this project. We had a lot of ideas, and each time we interviewed a new user, we pivoted and came up with completely different ideas. Eventually, however, going in all the different directions our ideas took us allowed us to come up with one prototype that seemed to be helpful to the people we asked to test it. In our team, Yi kept us on track most consistently, but overall I feel that we didn’t fall into roles. Instead, we all did what was needed of us, and supported each other by dividing work equitably. We ended up bonding, and creating something helpful! (Laura)