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Fast Chat: Capturing Faces and Stories

We ask a student leader to share her story.
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Somya Bhagwagar, a U-M School of Information senior, discovered her love of photography, and specifically portraiture, as a freshman. That same year, she started Students of UMich, a Humans of New York-inspired social media project that shares the stories, struggles, and faces of students on campus. Today, Students of UMich has more than 4,500 Instagram followers and has posted the profiles of more than 100 students on Facebook and Instagram. Michigan Alumnus gleaned the following in a conversation with Bhagwagar.

> BHAGWAGAR’S FIRST PHOTOGRAPHY JOB was for Innovate Blue, U-M’s hub for student entrepreneurship programs. Given her inexperience at the time, she feels lucky to have been hired. (She bought her first camera once she was offered the job.) Today, Bhagwagar is a portrait photographer for the College of Engineering, where she developed #HerEngineering, a photography project illustrating the struggles women in engineering face.

> GROWING UP IN SAGINAW, MICHIGAN, Bhagwagar and her twin brother regularly visited farmers markets with their parents, who were both born in India. “My parents taught me to be a mental world traveler. I learned I did not need a plane ticket to explore but could have amazing experiences by engaging in conversations with people and learning what makes their eyes light up.”

> BHAGWAGAR INADVERTENTLY WANDERED INTO a new student session at the School of Information her sophomore year and was immediately drawn to one of the school’s majors: social media analysis. “It was perfect for me because I was interested in understanding filter bubbles, algorithms, and the techno-politics of how information alters the way we think.” Through electives, she is also learning the more technical skills of coding and analysis.

> WHEN SHE STARTED STUDENTS OF UMICH, her goal was to get people to see different perspectives. At first, she thought only her friends would follow the site. But as more and more students opened up to her about sensitive issues (sexual assault, race, and depression), she saw the traffic increase. Now, students message Bhagwagar and offer to share their stories for future posts.

> DESPITE SUFFERING FROM A HEALTH ISSUE that has led to her lungs collapsing five times, Bhagwagar is the co-president of the Michigan Muscle Club, a student organization she joined her sophomore year after winning a pullups competition against a male member. Though one of the only women to join at the time, Bhagwagar’s recruiting of women has paid off. Today, 50% of the roughly 70 active members are women, thanks to her efforts at changing the culture so it is more focused on fitness and community than lifting.

> THIS PAST SUMMER, BHAGWAGAR WORKED as an intern at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on the global information cybersecurity team. “As a kid, I always read privacy policies that no one else would take the time to read. I am not sure what real-world job will be right for me, given all my passions and interests, but I am trying everything I can to find out.”

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