By Laura Allan
It was four years ago when I first skipped classes to go to a protest. My school was making major decisions without consulting students, even though it was our money they were spending, so we fought back in the only ways we knew how: we stopped going to classes, we skipped meals at the school dining facility and we slept on both the board of trustees' porch and the college president's front lawn. We didn't have tents, so we wrapped our sleeping bags in plastic wrap or garbage bags to make them waterproof. It rained several times during the protest.
The experience is one I 've never regretted. In the time I protested I made close friends and added many stories to my personal inventory of things to tell my children someday. We didn't get that many of the things we demanded, but we got a few, and for me that was enough to validate all the time we spent.
Today I turn on the news and see the protests going on in Oakland, on Wall Street and now on the Berkely campus, which I guess really shouldn't come as a surprise considering the college's political past. Colleges have grabbed ahold of Occupy to create their own movement. Still, I have mixed feelings. I remember standing with my peers for what I believed was right. I remember the experience of rabidly and entirely devoting myself to one cause at the cost of all other things. But these protests are different. For one, I never had to stand up against rubber bullets or tear gas. But what makes me feel so torn about these students participating in the Occupy Colleges movement?
Let's be honest for a moment, our economy sucks right now, and that's putting it lightly. The gap between rich and poor is growing wider with no real sign of stopping. Large companies get bailed out while small mom and pop stores go under. For students, it might be hardest of all.
Tuition, especially in the state of California, is on the rise. Class sizes and fees are growing, while the number of classes available and the number of students graduating in four years shrink. Worse, our job market is still so competitive and bleak. Once you get out of college you may have a degree but little to no actual experience, which is what employers really want. That leaves the average student with a mountain of debt, no job and no way to pay for their housing, food or loans.
The sluggish economy is punishing our recent graduates, who have been told their whole lives that if they complete college they'll have an advantage. No one wants to be poor and in debt. No one wants to be jobless and lost in a sea of the unemployed. On this level I understand why the students who protest with the Occupy Colleges movement are so angry. Their lives have little or no silver linings and they're unprepared for a world that doesn't care for a second about their college diploma.
Impact on Education
For students, this is a huge problem. When I was protesting and skipping classes, I had the blessing of many of my teachers who were also angry about changes in the curriculum. I'm sure that some teachers also support Occupy and are lenient on students who decide to participate. But what about the ones that don't support it? How many students are slowly working their way down the GPA food chain in order to stand up for what they believe?
While there's something to be said for showing your support for a cause at all costs, what's really the cost here? A student is already likely to be in debt and have trouble graduating in four years given the current college climate. Missing classes is just going to reinforce that problem. People pay good money for classes, and by not going students are basically giving money away and working themselves further into debt. Sure, a diploma doesn't do as much nowadays as it used to, but if you're in school you're already taking on the debt of having one, so not graduating sure doesn't help either.
In other words, by joining the protests and missing class, students are endangering their future and giving free money to the very colleges they want to charge less. But how much is standing up for your beliefs worth? How would a student feel if the changes they want never happened and they never stood up to voice their opinion?
The other thing students have to watch out for is the physical dangers of a protest. Besides police, the lack of good food and clean and healthy living conditions (and just being around so many others who might pass on germs) is not exactly safe. But those are things that can be somewhat fixed with better food, tents, hand sanitizer and port-a-potties. The physical safety when standing up against authorities or staying in places where people are not supposed to stay is the most concerning issue for me. The news has reported skull fractures and broken bones. They have shown people being carried off the streets after tear gas was introduced. Several times in Oakland, the scene has looked like a battlefield, and to some degree I guess it was.
While the Occupy Colleges movement is only piggybacking on the larger Occupy movement, it still has many of the same dangers. It seems that recent Occupy Colleges protests are even more volatile and violent than ones off-campus. Often, it's students who initiate this violence, giving their movement a bad name and resulting in arrests.
I never had to deal with the possibility of getting gassed or shot with rubber bullets. The idea of that happening is daunting to me. On one level I feel as though the students who stand up and face this threat are brave. They want to show they're not afraid of pain if it means doing what they think is right. I respect that wholeheartedly. But at the same time I wonder if it's worth it. Students are still in such a young phase of life. Is it worth risking injuries that may impact your health later to voice an opinion? Think of mothers worrying about their children, friends concerned about friends. For a movement that can put a strain on your education, is it honestly worth your safety?
In the end, the only decision I can make is for myself. And that goes for every student out there. I don't go to the Occupy protests because they don't have a clear voice, they would interfere with my ability to pay for my home, food and utilities, and I'm not willing to risk my personal safety. But others feel it's worth these things to protest, and who am I to say they're wrong? Change has to start somewhere, and in history it usually starts with a lot of angry people making a lot of noise. As far as that goes, it's mission accomplished for the Occupy Colleges movement.
I've been considering buying a pizza for the Occupy Berkely group for a while now, just to show my respect and understanding. I think I'll put in that order this week. Even if I won't stand with them, I'm not afraid to let them know that I admire their passion for positive change, because they're right on one count: things do need to change. The protestors may seem ridiculous and may overreact at times, but it's because they want something so much they're willing to do whatever it takes to get it. I've been there once myself, after all. Who am I to put them down? And Lord knows when I was camping on the school president's front lawn I could have really used a hot slice of pizza.
Still not sure you know the facts on the Occupy Colleges Movement? Find out more with these 10 things you need to know!