It is not uncommon for great ideas or solutions to problems to come to us when we are working on a routine, everyday task. While cleaning my room at the beginning of the semester, I came across a few old textbooks. Wondering whether I would still be able to get any money for them, I started thinking about how little students often get for selling their books as opposed to what they pay for them. I decided that the best idea for me might be to donate the books to an academic department to see if someone might be able to use them the next semester. This idea began to expand, and I thought about what other people might do with textbooks for which they will get very little money. What if the students at UMBC had the opportunity to donate their textbooks to a program that would pass them on to other UMBC students with financial need, who would then use those textbooks the next semester? If I was only going to get five or ten dollars for a book, I would be happy to instead pass it on to a future student in need.
Textbooks can cost the average student hundreds of dollars every semester, and for those who are on limited incomes, this can be an overwhelming expense. Even when a student is getting financial aid, this money is often required to help pay the student’s living expenses. The amount that is spent on textbooks can easily be equivalent to a month’s rent, several months worth of food, or any number of other expenses that may arise throughout the semester. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a social justice issue—students who can’t afford it are required to get textbooks that cost hundreds of dollars. Those with children, ongoing medical issues and other long-term costs are affected at an even greater level by these expenses.
Many people may not see this as a particularly “feminist” issue, but as activist Winona LaDuke has made clear , feminist activism encompasses all areas that affect the quality of life for women and their families. Knowing that women are paid less for their work, any debt that they take on over their time at college will hit them harder. Interest rates will continue to accrue, as women are unable to contribute as much as men can towards paying off their debts, due to this inequality in pay.
The first step I decided to take towards implementing my idea was to look into what alternatives are offered to students needing to purchase textbooks. Options include downloading Kindle versions of textbooks, renting textbooks and buying used. Kindle editions of books are not much cheaper than print versions, and renting textbooks often costs fifty dollars or more, depending on the original book’s price. Buying used textbooks, especially online, can also be cheaper, but much of this depends on how lucky you are to find good deals.
After finding out this information, I began to look into what type of similar programs might already exist at other universities. Surprisingly, I could find very little. Many universities have a “textbook exchange” where people can sell their books to other students, but I could find nothing about a program that gives people the opportunity to donate textbooks knowing that they will go to fellow students at their university who have financial need.
One of the more difficult aspects of this project was figuring out the potential allies I could work with, as well as those who might have an opposition to such a program. Organizations such as the University Bookstore and Financial Aid were obvious stakeholders, but it took more time to find other groups who would be interested in the project. I reached out to the Black & GoldFund, which is an organization that helps students who are faced with unexpected financial issues. I also talked to the Women’s Center, members of the Office of Student Life, and individual students about their interest in such a program. I received positive feedback on the idea, which was very motivational.
Due to the lack of time that I had throughout the semester, I was unable to get much farther than this stage. I underestimated the amount of organization and administrative details that it takes to work on a project such as this. However, the idea for this project still holds great excitement for me, and I hope to continue working on it throughout the summer and in the coming year.
As I reflect back on the time I spent on the project this semester, there are a few things that I find to be especially worth noting. An important lesson that I learned was to be careful not to bite off more than I can chew. A project such as this takes a large amount of time, and is not something that one can do alone. Additionally, I am not a person whose strengths involve organization and deadlines. My strengths lie in the areas of creating ideas, solving problems, and working with people. In another class I took this semester, we discussed the importance of working on projects that allow you to focus on your strengths. I think one reason that I sometimes struggled with this project throughout the semester was my dread of the bureaucratic work that would be involved. Some people excel in this area, and it would have been wise for me to find someone like this to work with. I am definitely learning that it is ok to ask for help from others who can complement me in my areas of struggle. Additionally, having several people working together on different areas that they each excel in can go a long way to preventing burnout. When playing to your strengths, it is not as difficult to put forth the effort required for a project. As I would like to continue working on this project, I hope to find a few other interested people who can help me with the more ‘administrative’ tasks. This will allow me to work on the areas where I am strong, making it more likely that this worthwhile project will begin to take off.