She implored first-year Lehigh students to appreciate the privilege of attending a university, and encouraged them to maintain a social conscience regarding those who are less fortunate.
"By even attending a school like Lehigh, you are already in an elite category," Ehrenreich, who described herself as "a traveling agitator," told the students who filled Baker Hall. "You already have a wealth of opportunities open to you."
In response to several student questions about following through on a commitment to the less fortunate, Ehrenreich urged students to invest in political candidates who have expressed a strong allegiance to social justice and to volunteer in their communities.
Students who attended the talk were already familiar with Ehrenreich’s work because their required summer reading assignment was Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which she wrote after taking several low-paying jobs to learn first-hand about the struggle of the working poor.
Her book was selected to encourage students to examine issues related to socio-economic disparities, says Lori Bolden, assistant dean of first-year student programs, and Kathleen Hutnik, assistant director for students with disabilities.
"We have a commitment to diversity at Lehigh," Hutnik says, "and we regularly deal with issues related to race, class and gender. We wanted to broaden the discussion to include socio-economic issues as well, and we saw this as a great opportunity to do that."
Adds Bolden: "What we hope for is that, by reading Ehrenreich’s book, students will broaden their awareness of those who work low-wage jobs, and what options they realistically face in life."
Getting on the same page
More than 20 volunteers from across the campus led small discussion groups with first-year students to further examine the dilemma of those workers who struggle with low wages, poor working conditions, and limited economic opportunity.
Unlike the University of North Carolina, where a conservative student group organized protests against Ehrenreich’s book, Lehigh saw no groundswell of opposition to either the selection of Ehrenreich’s book or her visit. However, Bolden and Hutnick say, some questioned the author’s sincerity and her motives for writing the book.
"In our discussion groups, they said things like, ‘Can she really speak for these people if she was only living like them on a temporary basis?’ Or they wondered if she donated any of the proceeds of the book to charity," Hutnik says. "Overall, though, I think it was a very positive experience for the students who may have gained an increased awareness of socio-economic disparity."
Sue Cady, coordinator of Lehigh’s Friends of the Library, adds that "it was exciting to see so many students reading the same book and exploring these issues as a group."
Cady notes that Nickel and Dimed is also the selection for the "On the Same Page" program at Lehigh that was initiated last spring to help commemorate the 125th anniversary of Linderman Library.
Prior to her talk, Ehrenreich attended a reception in her honor at the Humanities Center, where she met with nearly 30 members of the Lehigh staff and faculty, and with the volunteer discussion moderators.
At that reception, Ehrenreich said that it was her hope that readers of her book will become motivated to become activists on some level.
"I always hope that every article or book I write inspires people to get fired up and march on Washington," she said. "But I’ll settle for them just becoming more aware."