Not to oversell it, but I grew up poor. The kind of poor where all your dishes are old Cool Whip containers and where you decide that some nights it’s better for everyone if you just go to sleep hungry. When I decided to go to college as a first-generation student, I knew it would be a risk. Given my background, there wasn’t going to be a safety net for me to fall back on if things went wrong. But even if I had to do it on my own, I knew that college was the only opportunity I had if I wanted to change my situation -- and so for me, it was a risk I had to take.
Knowing it was something that I had to do didn’t make the first few semesters any easier though. College, as it turns out, is expensive. Being a low-income student meant that while I had my tuition covered by financial aid, all the other expenses that came with college looked like mountains. From asking professors to see if I could complete an assignment on paper because I couldn’t afford a laptop, to having to walk to class because I couldn’t afford a parking pass – each fee risked the possibility of pushing me into the negative and out of school. A few days before my first classes I went to hunt down the required textbooks and quickly realized that even rentals, the lowest cost option, were well outside of my budget. So I didn’t buy them.
Taking classes without the required materials is a lot like starting a course half-way through the semester; it feels like every assignment and lecture is in the middle of a topic that you’ve never even heard about before. Tests are based on topics only covered in the readings, assignments are on certain chapters, exams are open book (but only if you have a book to open). To sum up the overall experience: it stinks. For a long time, it felt like I was getting half the education that I’d paid for simply because I wasn’t able to afford the materials for those classes. To be honest, it was crushing.
It's this experience, however, that made me so excited about affordable and open educational resources (AOER). I first heard about AOER during my first semester at UNC. Searching for a job, my advisor recommended I apply for the ‘UNC Libraries AOER student position’ – to which I promptly asked, “What in the world is an AOER?” As it turns out, AOER are the solution to the very problem that had nearly driven me out of college: course materials that were things other than traditional textbooks, like library resources or online content, or openly licensed materials made available to students for free. Once I knew what AOER were, I knew that I had to get in, and less than a month later I would be starting my first day on the job.
As UNC’s AOER student employee I work with UNC’s AOER committee to advertise, facilitate, and advocate for AOER on campus. This means that I get to bring a student voice to the conversation. While the decision to use AOER lies entirely in the hands of faculty, I get to be an advocate for those who would benefit the most from these materials and help spread the word so that students can take courses that best fit their budget. It would be an understatement to say that doing this work has returned my agency in what has felt like a hopeless situation.
I would love to say that AOER have suddenly fixed the entire affordability crisis that higher education is going through, but that's not true. What I can say, however, is that the AOER movement offers an opportunity to make college better. It is an opportunity to better facilitate and share knowledge, an opportunity to get students more involved in the learning process, an opportunity to better facilitate diversity into college classrooms, and an opportunity to allow students like me to get an education – and maybe even change their lives.