Daniela Valdes Bennett and Ana Garcia, visiting students through the NYU Hurricane Maria Assistance Program, in Bobst Library at NYU. Photo by Claire Tighe
When Puerto Rican college students Ana Garcia and Daniela Valdes Bennett applied to transfer to NYU for their spring semester after surviving two hurricanes, they kept it a secret from each other. The friends broke the news through emojis — an airplane, followed by another airplane and an American flag.
“I texted her saying, ‘Hey, I have news,’” said Bennett. “Ana said, ‘I have news too.’ And we freaked out.”
Garcia and Bennett are two of the 57 students admitted to NYU for the Spring 2018 semester through the Hurricane Maria Assistance Program. Through the program, NYU covers full tuition, a meal plan, housing and health insurance for students whose educations were interrupted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall.
“There were over 400 applications and several hundred more that were not completed,” said Josh Taylor, Associate Vice Chancellor of Global Programs at NYU. “We prioritized students with challenging living situations, no internet and who attended campuses with no electricity.”
Other major universities, including Tulane, Cornell and Brown, are offering similar programs this spring.
Bennett and Garcia decided to transfer after barely managing one semester on the recovering island. Throughout the fall semester, closed classrooms, destroyed equipment and loss of power made studying nearly impossible.
Garcia’s school was closed for weeks due to the storms.
“Water came through the roof and ruined all the computers, everything,” Garcia said. “When the school opened again, we were taking classes in different places. It was a mess. When classes resumed, the power wasn’t guaranteed.”
Today, 131 days after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans on the island continue to struggle with the lack of reliable power. According to status.pr, 69% of the island has electricity, leaving 450,000 people currently without power. Garcia’s family completely lost power for four months. For Bennett’s, it was three and a half months, but they still have intermittent outages.
“Just this morning my family lost power again,” said Bennett. “It’s coming and going. Talking to them on the phone makes me kind of sad to know that they are still there. My twin brother is still studying in Puerto Rico and he keeps calling me saying, “‘I’m so jealous of you.’ I know it’s hard for them.”
During the fall semester, both students did homework using flashlights and candles. To do research, they drained their cell phone batteries and used what little data they had. When it was time to recharge, they took their laptops and phones to local cafes and waited along with dozens of other people who shared surge protectors and outlets.
“There were so many lines,” said Garcia. “For everything.”
At the cafes, the young women submitted their applications to NYU, which felt like a much-needed relief from the stress in the aftermath of the storms.
“The situation is just so overwhelming,” said Garcia. “You can’t think of anything but getting your power back and being able to shower with hot water.”
For Garcia, the chance to attend NYU for the spring seemed like a second chance to buckle down after a semester lost to the hurricanes.
“I found out that I had gotten into the program while I was at the bakery charging my phone and my laptop,” said Garcia. “And then I started crying and the people at the bakery were like, ‘Are you okay?’ And I was like, ‘Yea, I’m just really excited. This is good news.”
On campus at NYU, the transfer students feel embraced by their peers, despite the differences in their experiences.
“As soon as I told my roommates I was from Puerto Rico, they asked me about the hurricane,” said Bennett. “They sat around the table and I told them all of my stories and they were like, ‘Oh my god, wow.’
But the visiting students feel like their peers aren’t talking about Puerto Rico as much as they should be.
“I do feel like a lot of people have forgotten about it,” said Bennett. “People think it’s over and there has been so much progress, so I don’t want to complain. But it’s not over yet.”
Protestors march 28 blocks from Union Square to Bryant Park on January 30 to protest Trump’s ban on immigration. Photo by Brelaun Douglas
Braced against the cold of a late January night, their breath mixing with the icy air with every chant, protestors gathered at Union Square in Manhattan to rally against President Trump’s recent ban on immigrants from several countries.
Decked in scarves, gloves and with signs that read “ We are Earthlings” and “ Students in Solidarity,” they chanted “No ban. No registry. F*ck White supremacy,” and let it be known that they wouldn’t stand for the president’s executive order.
Taking a break from crying out “One solution: revolution” a student was called forward to tell her own personal story.
“When I came in on the train on the 26th, it was the day before the ban,” said the Iranian born student living in Canada who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “I was searched because they thought that I was coming and going to the U.S. too many times. They searched everything: they searched my notebooks, my writings, my phone. The Farsi and the Hebrew in my stuff alarmed them, I could tell,” said the student who is getting her PhD in politics at the New School.
On Friday, Trump signed an executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim majority countries for 90 days, barring Syrian refugees indefinitely and suspending refuge admissions for 120 days.
The order quickly prompted nation-wide protests as thousand flocked to airports over the weekend to protest the ban and demand that detained refugees be let free.
The PhD student went on to tell a sea of shocked faces that she was told she was only allowed to stay in the U.S. until February 3.
“The officer said that he will be on the train to make sure that I am on it and if not he will send Trump’s people after me,” she said. “Now I have to go back and I don’t know if I can return. I don’t know what’s going to happen with my PhD, and more importantly to me, I don’t now if I’m going to ever see the people or the city that I love so much again. It’s a very traumatic experience because I already went through that as a child and you work so hard to heal those wounds. You just don’t imagine this happening again in what you call a liberal democracy.”
Many of the protestors had amassed in the square following a rally at the New School. Among them was Mariel Gauger, a second year student at the New School with an undeclared major.
“I’m here to share solidarity with all the immigrant students at the New School who might be put in danger by Trump’s new policies,” she said. “I think Trump is only the tip of the iceberg with this kind of stuff.”
While in the square, protestors were joined by others who wanted to show their support, including Anthony Cartagine, a third year economic student at Baruch College.
“I’m out here to protest against Trump, and to protest the ban especially, and to support the people that are threatened by Trump,” he said. “When I first heard about it, it was very upsetting. It felt a bit shocking even though it’s what he said he was going to do.”
For many, what they wanted to result from the rallies and the protests was clear.
“With all the rallies and the protest I would like to see people mobilizing beyond just the rallies,” said Cartagine as he marched 28 blocks with the group to Bryant Park to meet up with more students from Fordham University and Columbia. “ They help inspire other forms of action and I think that probably the best thing to do is [for] people to just continue to act beyond the protest and take action whenever they can.”
But for the PhD student, it was more difficult to articulate her exact wants.
“Where I hope this goes, I have no idea,” she said. “Open borders and less wars. My hopes are too much to say right now”
Imagine being an LGBT student on an American college campus in 1969, in fear to come out because of gay bashing, police brutality, and even murder.
“This is a liberation, a really different moment in lesbian and gay political possibilities,” said Ann Pellegrini, the author of “Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance”. “It went from ‘don’t arrest us for wearing women’s clothing’ or ‘don’t arrest us for having sex with a person of the same sex’ to ‘we want the law to regulate us in our intimate relationships’.”
Pellegrini said she is confident that LGBT students are in a more tolerant environment than they would have been years ago. She attests this tolerance to the legalization of same sex marriage.
“It’s really different to have marriage be the thing,” said Pellegrini. “This was not what the people were rioting about at Stonewall, they just wanted the police off their backs.”
The Stonewall riots, which were demonstrations by the gay community against a police raid in 1969 in Greenwich Village, are far from what LGBT students face today in New York City.
Since 2004, when Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same sex marriage, there have been 71,165 same sex marriages according to the Pew Research Center. In correlation, the Human Rights Campaign reported that 75 percent of LGBT youth say that most of their peers do not have a problem with their identity as LGBT.
This percentage is illustrative of how far the LGBT community has come since the 1960’s.
But according to a New York University graduate of 2009 from Deal, NJ, who would not give his name because of fear of discrimination, there is still a lot of work that has to be done. He said gay students were mocked.
“I thought that out of anywhere in the world to go to school, NYU would be the easiest to come out because there was a culture of acceptance in the village and New York City as a whole,” he said. “There were gay closeted people at NYU because they were afraid to come out and I know this because I was one of them.”
One of the ways that New York University tackles the difficulties that LGBT students are confronted with is by creating a safe environment at the LGBTQ center.
“We talk a lot about microaggressions and we have a lot of programming that takes on these kinds of conversations,” said Leah Miller, a first-year student at NYU and volunteer for Ally Week, a national youth-led effort that empowers students to stand up against anti-LGBT bullying.
She defined microaggression as comments or jokes that don’t necessarily have a mean or malicious intent at all, but the impact that they have perpetuates sexism, homophobia and transphobia.
“For example with LGBTQ, if someone were to say ‘oh do you have a boyfriend’ if you were a woman or ‘when are you going to get married and have kids’ assuming things about peoples lives based on norms,” she said.
Another way that New York University works to stop intolerance against LGBT students is through Bystander Intervention which teaches non – LGBT students who are present during emergency situations how to successfully intervene and stop any acts of violent discrimination.
“Our training notes hate speech and discrimination among a number of other examples of scenarios where there may be opportunities to intervene to help others,” said Caroline Wallace, Director of Health Promotion at NYU. “The purpose of the training is to let NYU community members know they can play a role in mitigating or avoiding negative outcomes around a number of topics.”
But New York University doesn’t only want to train their students to fight against anti-LGBT bullying. They also want to educate them and find out where these negative and positive messages are coming from.
Claire Mahany and Piper McCain, outspoken peer educators for the LGBT Center and volunteers for Ally Week, asked their students during a Safe Zone class, a training program a the LGBTQ center, how they internalize the messages they see in their daily lives while on campus.
“I would say that something that stood out for me was meeting someone that was out and proud and not apologetic for who they were,” said Tom, a participant in Safe Zone that would only go by his first name in fear of intolerant backlash. “I think having that type of role model makes a difference.”
Markus Zakaria, 22, outside his apartment on campus at NYU during the blizzard. Photo credit: Christina Dun
It’s the first day back to school and already there’s a snow day.
For many students living in New York City for the first time, alerts of “Snowmageddon 2015” or #NYCBlizzard is something new to experience.
“This is nothing like Dubai,” said Markus Zakaria, a music technology grad student at NYU who lives on campus. He has gone from growing up in Dubai to pursuing his undergraduate degree in Florida, where he’s no stranger to the heat. Here in NYC however, it’s a little different this time of year.
“So far I’m enjoying it. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this,” he said. “It’s not too cold just yet, but I hear it’s going to get worse.”
Two to three feet of snow is expected to fall by Tuesday night but he’s not getting too worried.
While it seems like the rest of New York is in a state of panic, Zakaria is looking on the bright side.
“Coming from a hot place to a cold place, I actually prefer this,” he said. “You can always put more clothes on, but there’s only so much you can remove when it’s too hot.”
It’s a good thing he likes to wear layers, as New Yorkers must bundle up in those heavy jackets and scarves this week. Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency Monday afternoon, warning people to stay safe at home. The MTA also announced that all bus, commuter rail and subway services would be suspended at 11 p.m. Monday night.
NYU students received multiple emails, texts and notifications of closures and cancelled classes and Zakaria is excited to get to fully experience the snow in the city.
While New York residents are preparing for the storm by stocking up on food, water and supplies, Zakaria feels like he’s ready. He said he’s stocked up and has snow boots at hand, but since he hasn’t seen it that bad yet, he isn’t too sure what to expect.
Lines at grocery stores have been incredibly long, as seen throughout social media, and shelves are emptying, all to get ready for the blizzard that’s been named Juno.
For Zakaria, he’s seeing more good than bad so far and he’s just living in the moment.
“I can’t see how it would be horrible, but I guess we’ll see how this day goes,” he said. “I’m looking forward to building snowmen and snow angels though.”
Earlier this month, students laid on the floor of the NYU Bookstore with their eyes shut and fliers placed on their chests that read, “Deathtraps never stop exploiting.”
The students are members of NYU’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) and were protesting the University’s relationship with sweatshop labor in Bangladesh through a “die-in”. The JanSport backpacks sold in the cavernous East Village bookstore, are made in sweatshops, protestors said. VF Corporation, an American apparel company that makes the bags, refuses to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which aims to make garment factories safe workplaces through the implementation of more building inspections.
“They are one of the largest producers if not the largest producers in Bangladesh and it’s really important that they sign on to the Accord because it will determine whether or not the majority of the factories are covered”, said Robert Ascherman, an organizer with SLAM.
SLAM, which is a part of the national organization, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), is pushing the University’s administration to end its contract with VF. The students staged the “die in” to highlight the many workers killed and injured in garment factory accidents in Bangladesh in the past year.
SLAM members also delivered a letter in person to NYU’s officials in February, requesting them to break their ties with VF.
“Our real power comes not from individual actions but by working together and putting pressure on the university,” said Ascherman. “Because we pay (the university), it should be responsive to students and listen to us, but that’s not actually how it occurs here.”
After doing some research on the matter, the University will be responding to SLAM’s letter this month, according to John Beckman, Vice President of Public Affairs at NYU.
In an e-mail, Beckman said that JanSport is an NYU licensee meaning that it is authorized to produce NYU apparel. JanSport was purchased by the VF Corporation in 1986. Despite that, JanSport is the sole holder of the license to produce NYU apparel.
“JanSport, like all the VF companies, operates independently and determines where to manufacture JanSport goods”, Beckman said. “JanSport has never produced apparel in Bangladesh.”
He also said that VF owns another brand called VF Imageware, which does produce in Bangladesh. However, NYU does not have a contract with VF Imagewear, and that no VF brand has ever produced NYU apparel or products in Bangladesh.
There have been numerous garment factory disasters in Bangladesh, including fires and building collapses. More than 100 workers were killed in a fire at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in November of 2012 as reported by Human Rights Watch.
In April of 2013, over 1,000 workers lost their lives when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Dhakka, the country’s capital. Rana Plaza was home to many Western retailers’ factories.
Ismail Ferdous is a documentary photographer, who is based in Dhakka, but also works in New York City. He was at the scene of the disaster and was able to capture the pain and devastation of both the victims and their families in his photographs.
“An eight-story building became like a sandwhich,” Ferdous said, demonstrating by clamping both his hands close together. “I never seen so many dead bodies in my life-like 1,200 people and the faces of the victims’ families broke my heart all the time,” he said.
SLAM wants to raise awareness about the lack of safety standards in many Bangladeshi garment factories so accidents like Rana Plaza don’t happen again.
Along with some other Western apparel companies, VF has joined the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. In a statement of purpose that was released in July of 2013, leaders of the Alliance said they plan to launch their own Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative.
But Ascherman said that the Alliance is “illegitimate, not legally-binding and does not provide enough funds” to ensure building repairs and inspections as the Accord does.
Besides VF, GAP, Wal-Mart, JCPenney, and the Children’s Place are some of the other American companies that haven’t signed the Accord. According to a report by the International Labor Rights Forum, GAP, Wal-Mart, and the Children’s Place have also refused to compensate the victims of the factory disasters they’re involved with.
“They’re big companies,” said Ferdous. “They can afford to compensate the (victims’) families, because the families are poor. Some of the kids lost both their parents.”
As the one-year anniversary of the deadly Rana Plaza incident draws near, SLAM has experienced some success with their “End Deathtraps” campaign and getting their message out. “I think there’s been a significant amount of progress on this campaign,” said Ascherman.
He also said that recently several companies including Addidas and Fruit of the Loom have signed the Accord through the pressure of USAS groups at various universities across the country. “We’ve seen about six or seven groups sign on and so those factories will definitely start immediately seeing improvements.”
The safety and rights of Bangladeshi garment workers might not seem like an issue concerning Americans, but Ascherman begs to differ.
“Americans like anyone else are moral human beings and should be outraged about what’s going on and also should realize that as the major consumers of the products coming out of Bangladesh, we have a lot of power,” he said.
Even before the ice thaws and the cold front passes, New Yorkers are gearing up for the impending tax season. Many will turn to online filing services or a trusted tax firm they have used for the last 20 years.
Others will turn to a growing set of university students trained to prepare taxes for the country’s most needy families and their new online system aimed to reach a greater number of taxpayers.
St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens today launched an online-based program intended to make it easier for local low- and middle-income people to file their taxes. The city’s program, called Virtual Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, partners with Food Bank NYC sites across the city to reach potential taxpayer clients. Families who made less than $50,000 and individuals who made less than $20,000 are eligible for the program. Those sites scan their tax documents into a secure web server, which is then fed to the virtual center based at St. John’s. At that point, the student volunteers process their tax information. In turn, students get hands-on accounting experience in taxes.
Traditionally the program, run by the Internal Revenue Service, depends on in-person and paper-based tax preparation. In the past, students met face-to-face with taxpayers at intake sites, which burdened the program with high costs and left some clients waiting two hours or more, according to the City’s Department of Consumer Affairs. The new online-based system is expected to be more cost-effective and efficient.
“I’m thrilled,” said Nina Dorata, a professor in the Department of Accounting and Taxation at St. John’s University. “I expect the productivity of the students in this virtual setting will just skyrocket. We’re looking forward to a very productive tax season.”
Since 2009, professors like Dorata, in partnership with Food Bank NYC, have funneled nearly 500 student volunteers into the program at the university. In that time, St. John’s University students have prepared taxes for close to 4,000 low and middle-income families and individuals in New York. Since the program began in 2002, it has filed about 400,000 tax returns on behalf of low-income New Yorkers resulting in $700 million in tax refunds, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs.
“Those kinds of refundable tax credits can mean the difference between putting food on the table and not putting food on the table,” said Dorata.
In New York, Dorata’s remarks are hardly an exaggeration. Roughly 1.6 million New Yorkers live below the poverty line, according to the Census. About 1.4 million residents — mainly women, children, seniors, the working poor and people with disabilities — rely on soup kitchens and food pantries to eat, according to statistics from Food Bank NYC. The group reports low-income families can earn up to $7,649 in tax refunds.
“I worked with 35 clients last year,” said Garvey Jean, a sophomore in the accounting department and a second-year volunteer with the program. “That was 35 households I helped to get a tax refund who really needed it. It’s a really great feeling.”
“There’s pressure, but not too much pressure so you’re not freaking out about the job,” said Cristina Henriques, a sophomore in accounting and first-year volunteer who wants professional experience in taxes. “The supervisors tell us how to do everything step-by-step. They make it really simple for us.”
The students, mainly accounting majors, go through rigorous training before preparing taxes. They are required to pass the Lincoln Learn exam administered by the Internal Revenue Service and complete tax training during the university’s winter intersession.
“Right now there really are no borders on this program,” said Jean. “We’re not just limited to Queens and Nassau County. We’re servicing the Bronx, Yonkers, Brooklyn. This virtual site allows us to help a lot more people.”
Immigrants rights activists and legislators faced a setback last week in the push for the New York DREAM Act, which would give financial aid opportunities to undocumented youth, when the act failed to be included in this year’s $135 billion state budget.
The bill’s failure to be included in the budget stemmed from a discrepancy between the state’s two legislative bodies, the assembly and the senate. The State Assembly, which currently has a Democratic majority, had already included $25 million in its budget for the New York DREAM Act. However, the Senate never included it in its version of the budget.
“In the Senate it’s a much more complex situation right now,” said Katherine Tabares, a youth organizer for the not-for-profit Make the Road New York. “Republicans are not in favor of it and they, together with the independent Democratic caucus, form the majority.” There are currently 22 sponsors of the bill in the 63-member Senate.
Since it was not incorporated into the budget, the bill’s only chance of being enacted this year would be if both houses pass it by the end of the legislative session in June. The bill would make New York the fourth state to pass a DREAM Act granting undocumented students access to state funded financial aid. Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school, but only 5-10 percent of undocumented high-school graduates go to college, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
Assemblymember Francisco Moya introduced the bill in its current form in mid-January alongside Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah J. Glick. The bill would give access to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to qualifying undocumented youth, also establishing a DREAM Fund Commission to raise private funds for scholarships for children on immigrants. To qualify for the bill, undocumented students must have attended a New York high school for at least two years, graduated or received a GED, enroll in a college or university in the state of New York, and meet the requirements for TAP.
Senate Republicans in opposition to the bill have taken issue with its use of public funds. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said legislation establishing a private Dream Fund instead had a possibility to pass this year.
“I think there is support from people that tend to be a little bit more conservative,” said Skelos at the Crain’s Business Breakfast Forum in February. “As long as it’s private money put into the fund.”
But Tabares said there are already private funds for undocumented students, and that they do not go far enough to meet their financial needs.
“Regardless of whether national immigration reform is passed or not, the time that it would take for an undocumented youth to actually receive financial benefits from the federal government will be up to 14 years, so many students will have already graduated,” said Tabares, who is also a second semester student at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens. “The NY DREAM Act needs to pass this year because there are so many youth right now who can’t attend college.”
Governor Cuomo, who has come out in support of a federal DREAM Act, has yet to voice his support for the state sponsored legislation. Legislators in support of the bill have recently been more vocal in pushing the governor to take a stance.
“On behalf of all Dreamers, I am urging Governor Cuomo to again bring to bear his great courage, considerable political skills and extraordinary leadership abilities in getting something big, important and meaningful done. And make no mistake: Immigration reform is important and most certainly needs to get done,” said cosponsor Senator Jose Peralta in a statement last week.
“If Cuomo came out in support, many of the Senate Republicans in a neutral position right now could change their minds,” said Taberes. “But he hasn’t been vocal about it, and there continues to be opposition and a lot of doubt over the bill.”
Other undocumented students continued to hope the bill would pass while they were still in school.
“I feel behind compared to my citizen friends who have financial aid,” said Viviana Sanchez, a student at York College in Jamaica, Queens. “There are thousands of Dreamer students in New York State it would mean a lot to them, to parents—to my parents—and to myself.”
Sanchez, 19, added that her financial situation and inability to receive state financial aid have kept her a semester behind and forced her to attend college part-time.
“It’s been very hard for me to get through school, I try to work to supplement it with a bit of my parents help, but it’s still taking longer than it should,” she said.
Sanchez on the financial burden of being an undocumented student
Tabares said the key to having the bill pass was continued activism throughout the state.
“I personally have seen the growth in the last three years about the community being more vocal and supportive about it,” said Tabares. “Undocumented youth have been fighting for the NY DREAM act for years, you just can’t give up until you get what you want.”
Last month nearly 200 students and activists joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization that represents undocumented youth, in an organized trip to the state capital calling on legislators to enact the NY DREAM Act. The group completed scheduled visits with 59 legislative offices and in addition to those planned visits, also completed drop-in visits with 31 additional legislative offices, according to Gabriel Aldana, a member of the NYSYLC.
As a result, the group had 12 new co-sponsors, said Aldana.
Maria Jaime, 21, co-coordinator of the Westchester chapter of the NYSYLC, led a team of participants to meet with staff of State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow, and Assembly Member Addie J. Russell.
“Lobbying like this is a crucial part of passing a bill, focusing on activism and getting out in the streets,” said Jaime, a senior at Manhattanville College. “At the end of the day politicians are voting on the bill, but we give them that power as constituents.”
According to a report by the NYSYLC in conjunction with NYU Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, the cost of extending the Tuition Assistance program would be approximately $17 million per year.
“If the New York State DREAM legislation were financed through the state income tax, it would represent 87¢ per year—less than the price of a single donut—for a median tax payer,” said Jaime.
Assemblymember J. Gary Pretlow, a co-sponsor of the bill following the NYSYLC’s trip to Albany, said he looked forward to the bill coming to the floor.
“This is an issue that has been before us for a number of years, I think it’s of the utmost importance that everybody be given the opportunity in this country to advance themselves and move on,” he said.
Pretlow on the importance of passing the NYS Dream Act
Jaime said overall she felt the visit was a success, and that the most rewarding aspect was seeing others in her team share their stories with legislative staff.
“Seeing how each time you tell a story it gets more a little more personal, that’s great for their own growth throughout the day,” she said. “Last year when I came was the first time I shared my story with politicians as well, I didn’t tell anyone but I was really scared, but once you say it out loud it’s so empowering.”
Maria Jaime on putting a face to the issue
Sanchez, a member of Jaime’s team, echoed the sentiment.
“Of course it’s daunting to tell a politician your story, they’re the people who make the laws, the people who decide if I stay here or not, if the New York DREAM act passes or not,” she said. “But it’s such a big accomplishment for me.”
For one week, 11 art students at Cooper Union turned the top floor of the Foundation building into a media command center. They boarded themselves in with homemade wood and steel barricades, a hot plate, laptops, and cell phones; they issued communiqués, coordinated with students organizing on the outside via Skype, and talked with reporters. The move was an escalation in a series of salvos between students and the administration over the future of the school.
Free tuition for every student seems like a foreign notion, but for the students at Cooper Union, it is considered a right, because every accepted student, regardless of citizenship status or income level, receives a full scholarship. In order to manage the school’s precarious financial situation, which was exacerbated during the recent financial crisis, President Jamshed Bharucha announced the school would begin charging tuition to graduate students and more recently has hinted at the possibility of charging undergraduates tuition triggering a firestorm of dissent from students, alumni, and faculty.
“This was always in our minds as the next step,” said Tyler Berrier, a 21-year-old art student, and one of the eleven students who participated in the lock-in.
While initially the occupiers declared they wouldn’t leave the room until their demands had been met, including public affirmation of the value of free tuition and President Bharucha’s resignation, they left because they said they had accomplished what they had set out to do: spark a larger conversation around the value of higher education.
The occupying students worked in concert with other students who organized teach-ins, rallies, and hosted a series of lectures with academics, artists, and activists speaking about the burden of student debt. They worked in tandem with activists at Occupy Wall Street and broadened their scope to include students from CUNY and other schools.
“It was more of a catalytic action that would bring people together,” said Berrier.
The prospect of student debt is not far from Cooper Union students’ minds. According to a study by the Institute for College Access & Success, student loans average $25,600 per student for the class of 2011, up 5% from the previous year. Tuition at Cooper Union is valued at $38,550.
“It’s not something that I have to think about, having been able to go to Cooper, and being able to afford my living expenses,” said Casey Gollan, a senior in the school of art and another one of the occupiers talking about student debt. “But all of my friends deal with it.”
“It doesn’t seem like a sustainable solution for the world where students are given so much debt and they have to spend most of their lives paying it off,” he said.
Cooper Union is one of only a handful of schools that still offers its students a full scholarship. Founded by Peter Cooper, a member of the working class who eventually became a wealthy industrialist during the Industrial Revolution, free tuition for all has been a guiding principle of the school. Despite his eventual wealth, Cooper always considered himself part of the working class.
“He did not think of himself as a capitalist because he had come up from the trade and was largely uneducated,” said Peter Buckley, a historian in the humanities department at Cooper Union, who is currently working on a book about the history of the school. “It was supposed to be a free education for the working classes .” Cooper began the school as a night school so that working men and women “who wished to improve their chances in life” would be able to attend.
In order to cover operating costs, Cooper had a system where a small class of about 15 students, who could afford it, paid tuition to defray the costs for the rest of the students. This model continued until the early 1880s until the Cooper family rented out two floors of the Foundation Building that sits on Cooper Square and eradicated the amateur program. In its first capital campaign the Cooper family, along with a generous donation from Andrew Carnegie, established the school’s endowment.
In the August letter, President Bharucha tasked each of the three degree-granting institutions—Arts, Architecture, and Engineering—with the unenviable job of coming up with a solvency plan for their department, resulting in outcries from students, alumni, and faculty—many of whom believe that it was an underhanded move to force faculty to make the uncomfortable demand for undergraduate tuition.
“At the moment, they are outsourcing the decision, because even the trustees don’t want to be the ones getting rid of 100 years of tradition,” said Buckley.
“They are doing this work that is fundamentally against the mission of the school, their personal beliefs as educators and they are being intimidated into it,” said Kristi Cavataro, a junior in the art school, and one of the occupiers. “I know those of us in this room have a lot of faculty support in what we’re doing.”
Other groups have offered alternative financial plans, chief among them is Friends of Cooper Union, a coalition of alumni, faculty, and students dedicated to keeping the school financially solvent while protecting its centerpiece of free tuition for all.
“They’re building out these hybrid programs,” said Henry Chapman, a spokesperson for Friends of Cooper Union and a 2010 alumnus of the art program referring to establishing new graduate programs as a means to generate revenue. “It’s an extremely questionable path.”
Rather than pursue these revenue-generating graduate programs, which would require startup costs and which would not surmount the shortfall for the foreseeable future, Chapman argues that the school should focus on expense reduction while remaining a tuition-free institution. Friends of Cooper Union believes that implementing a tuition charge would ultimately work against the school because it would lose its main selling point, and ultimately make it less competitive.
“Tuition would certainly influence who applies and who elects to accept Cooper’s enrollment offers,”he said. “It would also diminish Cooper’s prestige and ability to attract leaders in the field of each discipline.”
Many students, faculty, and alumni believe that what is at stake is more than mere tradition, but rather an educational philosophy that has become endangered.
“Even a small embodiment of 19th century idealism can seem so unexplainable to a lot of people today,” said Professor Buckley. “These dreams were alive that anyone with talent could have a free higher education.”
“A lot of people want to look at Peter Cooper and the history of this place, but to me the stronger argument is the state of higher education today,” said Gollan. “It doesn’t make sense to give the next generation chains from the get-go.”
According to Buckley, Cooper himself would be horrified by the burden of student debt. “Debt was for his class a form of enslavement,” said Buckley. “I do think that if he were alive today he would see that college tuition loans were making a new form of enslavement for the American middle class.”
For now, students and faculty will have to wait to see what happens. The school has announced that it won’t make any plans until the new year.
“I’m just not willing to give in to that’s the way the world works,” said Gollan. “If we can stand up for it here and other places too like CUNY, it’s not going to have to be that way. Higher education is really worth it. But that cost can’t be passed to students over the course of the rest of their life.”