A pop-up barbershop at Michigan Technological University boosts student self-esteem and a sense of belonging by providing hair care for all textures.
Hair Care is Self-Care: Michigan Tech's Pop-Up Barbershop
It’s not looking like a good hair day – snow pelts campus with slush blobs and sloppy flakes, alternating with drizzle. But inside Michigan Tech’s Wood Gym, in the repurposed room that’s been transformed into a barbershop, the only precipitation is spritz from the spray bottle expertly wielded by Manny Hernandez of The Good Life Barber Lounge. The bright lights are on; so is the music. Clients, who booked online in advance, are filing through the pop-up barbershop on the half-hour like clockwork, a procession of shaggy befores and freshly styled afters.
In recent years, Huskies who could afford the time and expense have been traveling 98 miles to Hernandez’s shop in Marquette for a barbershop experience that helps them look and feel their best. Now Hernandez is coming to them. For him, it’s a way to provide clients far away from their hometown barber with a familiar experience important to their overall well-being. For Michigan Tech, it’s a way to help students feel at home — an embodiment of the sense of belonging the University wants for every Husky.
“Barbering is a culture,” says Hernandez. “There’s music, positivity, good lighting — a familiarity and comfortability. That’s part of my mission, to make them feel as good and comfortable as possible.”
"To know that they can look good and feel good — that grooming for self-esteem is so important. I'm glad to be a part of it."
A haircut seems like a small thing until you don’t have access to a professional who knows how to work with your hair. Some Huskies would go from August to Thanksgiving break, hanging on until they got home to their regular barber. Others would get together and cut each other’s hair.
“I would go to Marquette to get a cut from Manny, or go few and far between,” says Jamie Phillips. A student in the doctorate of physical therapy program MTU offers in partnership with Central Michigan University, Phillips earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science in 2016. “When I was an undergrad there was a guy on the football team that cut hair,” says Phillips, a former Tech goalie. “I’m very glad he (Manny) is here and hopefully we’ll increase the frequency of visits.”
Finlandia University students are also welcome to sign up for appointments, says Chris Sanders, multicultural student success coordinator and interim assistant director of the Michigan Tech Center for Diversity and Inclusion. “It’s a larger issue for the community, not just URM (underrepresented minority) students,” says Sanders, noting that as Michigan Tech moves forward with its diversity and inclusion initiatives, demand for services and opportunities that allow all students to feel and do their best in a rigorous academic environment will increase. “We want to be ready for that growing community,” he adds.
A Husky-led Initiative
Helping students find hair care for all textures has been an ongoing need at Michigan Tech. A student-athlete’s discovery more than a year ago catalyzed the campus barbershop concept.
“I went two and a half months without a haircut when I came here,” says Justin Davis.
“As a Black man, in our culture, haircuts, the way we look, our style is really important
… When I don’t have my hair cut, I wear a hat.”
The second-year MBA student and wide receiver on the MTU football team discovered Hernandez through a friend in Marquette and reached out early on to seek ways to bring the experience to Tech. The idea didn’t materialize until recently, when Michigan Tech Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion (VPDI) Wayne Gersie went to Manny for his own haircut. “He said, ‘We really need something like this at Tech,’” recalls Hernandez. And so the plan took shape.
“We had talked about it the past couple years,” says Alexandra Marshall, associate director of residence education. “This time, the timing was just right. It happened quickly. Wayne had Manny’s card. We called that day and started the ball rolling.”
The pop-up barbershop is especially uplifting after the strain Huskies have felt during the pandemic, Marshall says. “I want every student who walks in our doors to feel at home here.”
"Housing is all about community and making connections. This was one of those wins we needed — to work on a project that lets us be back to who we are."
Micah Johnson, a first-year student from the Iron Range of northern Minnesota majoring in mechanical engineering technology, got the first haircut of his college days in the pop-up barbershop. “It is a form of self-care,” he says, “but for me, the convenience is half the reason I did it. If he comes regularly, that works for me!”
Sanders says the people working on the project are committed to making it a permanent University offering.
The barbershop initiative is supported across campus and includes grant funding for permanent equipment. In addition to the VPDI’s office and Residence Education and Housing Services, supporters include Michigan Tech Athletics, the Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Office, and numerous other MTU staff and faculty members who have put care and energy into the effort.
Both Hernandez and Davis say the biggest takeaway from the barbershop initiative transcends student hair care — it’s showing Huskies the importance of making their needs clear to the people who are ready to listen.
“Ask and communicate what you want. You can already tell Michigan Tech is here for their students. And that’s not just related to barbering,” Hernandez says. “It’s related to your experience here and your time here at Tech.”
For more information on barbershop dates and times, check out the MTU Center For Diversity and Inclusion's website and social media.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.