Rose Wasielewski recognized a need when she found herself in a conversation about stigmas and issues that affect some Lawrence University employees who feel defined by or live within the confines of low-income backgrounds.

Their voices need to be heard, their concerns validated, their successes celebrated.

In November, Wasielewski, an associate dean of students and dean of the sophomore class, helped launch LIFT UP, the newest of six employee resource groups on the Lawrence campus. It aims to provide support and resources for faculty, staff, and students who come from low-income backgrounds or were first-generation college students.

Less than a year old, the group, chaired by Wasielewski, herself the first in her family to graduate from college, already has membership surpassing 40 faculty and staff. And now others are taking notice of the group’s work.

LIFT UP, an acronym for Low-Income, First Generation Talent Unpacking Privilege, is one of 38 recipients of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine’s 2020 Inspiring Affinity Group Awards. The magazine, a resource for diversity and inclusion news and information, debuted the Inspiring Affinity Group Awards in its July/August edition, with plans to make it an annual honor.

“I think LIFT UP is being so well-received because it touches on some marginalities and intersecting identities that aren’t as apparent on the surface but can still deeply impact the person with those identities,” said Wasielewski, who chairs the group. “You cannot necessarily know someone was a first-generation student just by looking at them. I think it is also easy to make assumptions about folks working at a small liberal arts college – that even if you were low-income as a student, you probably aren’t low-income now, and that just isn’t the case.

“I think many of us are hungry to take up the conversation about class and socioeconomic status and access so that we can work to dismantle some of the systems that don’t support, or even outright harm, some of our current students who hold these identities.”

In its report on the Inspiring Affinity Group Awards, the magazine called employee resource groups (ERGs) an important part of encouraging and facilitating diversity and inclusion in the workplaces of higher education. They can have a huge impact not only on recruiting diverse faculty and staff but also on retaining those employees long-term.

LIFT UP joined five other employee affinity groups that are active at Lawrence – Employees of Color Resource Group, Pride Resource Group, Emerging Professionals Resource Group, Global Employees of Lawrence Resource Group, and Anti-Racist White Affinity Group. All are organized through the Diversity and Inclusion office.

Kimberly Barrett, vice president for Diversity and Inclusion and an associate dean of the faculty, said the affinity groups are vital in connecting with and supporting employees from a wide variety of backgrounds. She said she’s thrilled to see LIFT UP garner national attention.

“The work of the group, which focuses on understanding the marginalization that results from class privilege, is intersectional and cuts across many dimensions of identity,” Barrett said. “One of the most impactful aspects of this group is that although it is an employee affinity group, the activities that bring them together often provide direct support to students.”

Gaelyn Rose
Gaelyn Rose

While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed some of its plans, the group hopes to put together a book read of Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students, possibly get the author to speak either on campus or virtually, and organize panel discussions on topics such as impostor syndrome or phenomenon.

The connection to current students, and the opportunity to provide support and insight, is one of the draws for LIFT UP’s members. Gaelyn Rose, an associate director of admissions who joined the group shortly after it launched in the fall, said she didn’t even think about being a first-generation college student until after she’d graduated.

“I look back and think of all the resources I could have used if only I’d known about them,” she said. “It motivates me to ensure all Lawrentians have access to the life-changing opportunities we can offer, and LIFT UP is such an innovative, amazing way to do this.”

Jaime Gonzalez
Jaime Gonzalez

Jaime Gonzalez, director of transfer admissions and transitions and a LIFT UP member, said the issues the affinity group is connecting with resonate with both students and employees. Often the issues, sometimes subtle, are bubbling just below the surface.

“Sometimes we forget that even though we’ve graduated and our lives may be different, our experiences and family histories don’t change but they do influence us and our work,” he said. “This is why I’m part of the LIFT UP group; it recognizes that our needs and experiences are different, and whether we are supporting students or ourselves, we still foster a strong sense of community around this integral part of our identities.”

Wasielewski said she sees nothing but growth ahead for LIFT UP, both in terms of membership and in the scope of its work. The visibility to date is valuable, but there is so much more work to be done in raising awareness, connecting students with opportunities, and pushing for a more equitable world, on and off campus.

“There is a lot of conversation among members about wanting to use this group to make a lasting, tangible difference, not only for ourselves as employees but more so for our students,” Wasielewski said.