By Dina Martin
Student CTA members speak out about standing up for what's right
On Nov. 18, UC Davis students gathered, as they had all week long, to link protests against tuition hikes with the broader protests against corporate greed of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The UC Davis student protests were really no different from protests taking place on campuses across the state. But this time, upon ignoring an order by campus police to disperse, the student protesters were doused with pepper spray as they peacefully sat, linking arms. The video and image became a viral sensation and led to national debate on the use of force and the right to demonstrate. In the wake, we caught up with a few Student CTA (SCTA) activists to get their thoughts on the importance of standing up for what they believe in.
Yen Nguyen wasn’t on the UC Davis campus when student protesters filmed a rogue officer pepper-spraying them in a video that went viral. But she saw it on Facebook minutes after it happened, and she turned out at the General Assembly the following Monday when thousands of students, faculty, alumni and community members showed their support for the students.
“It was so amazing and beautiful to see all those people together,” Nguyen says of the crowd that night on the usually apolitical campus.
Although the pepper spray wielding officer was trying to break up the students, his action only further galvanized them to return to their campus encampment, hold “teach-ins,” and continue their protests against campus violence and spiraling tuition hikes. That action may have also emboldened protests at UC Berkeley and UCLA, and at the UC Board of Regents meeting, where “business as usual” was disrupted.
Not surprisingly, the UC Regents have become the focal point for student outrage, as have their counterparts, the CSU Board of Trustees. While the Regents have denounced the fee hikes and have accused the state of defunding higher education, the students see the board as part of the problem, and are calling for the “democratization” of the board.
“Electing who represents us will definitely help students. We need a voice when hikes are discussed,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen, an SCTA Board member who has plans to become a math teacher at the middle or high school level, says she wasn’t motivated to become politically active until recently.
“Before, I thought, ‘I’m going to be leaving by then’ [when tuition hikes were discussed]. But now that I’m involved in SCTA, I think about how this affects future generations. People need to start being active and voice their opinions.”
Kristina Hohmann didn’t start out being a political activist when she became a member of Student CTA, which she joined to connect with others who planned careers in teaching. After all, she wanted to make the most of her education so that she could become the best teacher possible.
“Then I saw I couldn’t be my best until the laws changed,” the CSU Fullerton (CSUF) student says. “I began educating myself and saw that those who allocate funds for education are in political office, and we have to have a say. A lot of people who want to be teachers don’t know how outside forces affect them.”
Hohmann knows firsthand. Her parents told her they could provide support for her to go to one year of college, and after that, she would be on her own. Although she receives financial aid and teaches part-time at a private preschool, she has a hard time making ends meet with rising fees.
“My financial aid had covered tuition and parking and books. Now, it barely covers tuition,” she says.
Hohmann found that the more she learned about budget cuts in higher education, the more active she became. Last May she was involved in a three-day sit-in to persuade CSUF President Milton Gordon to sign a “Declaration to Defend Public Education.”
In November, CSUF students staged activities that included a four-day three-night camp-out in the Central Quad of the campus, à la “Occupy Wall Street.” Students set up 20 tents, took shifts as they attended class, held general assemblies each night, met with administrators and police, and kept their camp clean.
“Our purpose was to start a conversation with students,” Hohmann says. “It worked well for us that the Trustees had just voted on a 9 percent tuition increase that Wednesday.”
Thanks to the relationship they had begun with campus officials and police during their sit-in last May, the student protests in November were peaceful and achieved their goal of creating awareness on campus.
“Ultimately, our goal is to democratize the CSU Board of Trustees. We want them to be elected so they can be accountable to voters,” Hohmann says.
Wesley Porter is thinking that once he completes his bachelor’s degree at UC Riverside, he’d like to go to graduate school to become a professor of history — if he can manage to overcome a proposed fee hike by UC Regents that may go up 81 percent.
“It’s completely out of control,” Porter says. “Perhaps our public universities are seeing how for-profit colleges are doing so well and think they can get away with it, too.”
Porter has managed to keep afloat so far by having attended Riverside Community College, living with his parents, and obtaining low-interest loans.
“I’m doing all right for now, but I know people who already have $30,000 in student loans they’ll owe,” he says.
A former sheet metal worker who comes from a family of unionized sheet metal workers, Porter has nothing but praise for the role of unions in obtaining decent wages for workers. That’s one of the reasons he became involved in Student CTA, even while attending Riverside Community College.
“People have a lot of misconceptions about unions — even teachers — but if that union wasn’t there, teachers would be paid nothing,” he says.
Porter has been putting his union ideals to work lately building coalitions with other UC, CSU and community college students through SCTA, Students for Quality Education (SQE), and We! (a loosely knit group of CSUF students, faculty and campus organizations involved in social justice issues).
“It’s time to do something, and students have got to get involved. California is all about being a highly educated state, but we don’t want to provide the resources needed to educate students. Everyone should have access to a quality education,” he says.
As an SCTA Board member, Porter is proud that SCTA has taken a strong stance on educational advocacy.
“Professional development [for student teachers] is very important,” Porter says, “but at the same time, if we don’t stand up for higher education, we won’t have anything to stand up for.”
Shaun Lezer’s first foray into political activism was during last spring’s State of Emergency action at the state Capitol, following the arrest of some 30 CTA members for refusing to leave the building.
“I stood outside the jail and saw [former CTA President] David Sanchez coming out. It was very emotional to see how passionate these people are in CTA. It gave me hope that there are people who care,” Lezer says.
Now in his second semester at Modesto Community College, Lezer has a ways to go before he transfers to a four-year college to earn his bachelor’s degree and teaching credential. But getting involved with SCTA has given him a greater understanding about the importance of political involvement, even for students.
Lezer says the Modesto Community College campus is pretty quiet and relatively inactive when it comes to politics. Although he’s a member of SCTA, there is no chapter on campus. He’s hoping to find an adviser for the chapter, as well as to get students motivated to participate. Lezer himself traveled to CSU East Bay on Nov. 17 to stand in solidarity with the California Faculty Association in its one-day strike. He also designed the SCTA “Rage Against the Board of Trustees” poster for the Nov. 14-18 week of action.
“This is brand-new to me,” Lezer says. “I joined SCTA because I want to be a teacher, but I’ve become so much more aware of things. It’s pretty awesome.”
Related Tags: Volume 16 Issue 4, Take A Stand, Inside Educator, Educator, Activism, Cuts, Higher Education, Member, Protest, SCTA, Student,