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Interview: Student solidarity in higher education

Amanda Achin interviews Olivia Setzer, an undergraduate at Salem State University, about how students have been affected by the covid-19 crisis and how they are coming together to fight back.

What are some ways that you and other college students are being affected by the covid-19 crisis?

It’s no secret that almost everyone’s lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic. Focusing specifically on the college students’ experiences, I have heard mixed reviews about moving completely online. When it boils down to it, remote learning isn’t what students signed up for and their quality of education is being affected. The professors, in particular, have been outstandingly flexible and have gone out of their way to help students who are facing more than just motivation problems. 

Out of the five people living in my apartment, I was the only one fortunate enough to qualify to get a stimulus check. Even if I put all $1,200 towards our rent, that wouldn’t even cover half of it. Luckily, I live with people who are financially frugal and have saved enough to cover rent for between three and six months or they are still working, but I realize that not every student is in the privileged situation that we are.

I have had three jobs at a time for the past year and still didn’t make enough to qualify for unemployment during the pandemic. My job eventually offered employees voluntary furlough and enough people took it so I still have hours. Financial hardships can be stressful enough for students. When you add on seeing our siblings, children, friends, and cousins missing important schooling milestones or hearing the constant fear in our grandparents’ voices, it takes even more of an emotional toll. Having this stress for an extended period of time is going to exacerbate the already-existing mental health crisis in the US. 

How are students coming together in your school? 

I’m part of the Honors Program Advisory Council (HPAC). On HPAC, we have organized Virtual Bagel Tuesdays where we all sit over Zoom, eat breakfast and talk about what has been going on in our lives. We’ve also done Virtual Game Nights to keep students connected with one another. We’re in the process of planning another Game Night and possibly doing a Virtual Movie Night where someone screenshares a movie of the groups’ choosing. 

Students had been expressing their frustrations and concerns on multiple Salem State facebook pages. Initially, the biggest concerns were greater pass/fail options and reimbursements for tuition, dorms, and food plans. The pass/fail petition gained a lot of support from students and about 2900 students signed. Members of different student organizations started talking and brought together about 20 student organizations to sign on to a set of demands that were presented to the administration. A wide range of student groups signed on including Sunrise Movement Salem, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, Latin American Student Association, our campus radio station WMWM and even the SCUBA club.

The letter demanded that Salem State must 

  • switch to a pass/no pass policy 
  • reimburse students for unused meal plans, housing fees, and parking passes 
  • commit to an in-person Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020  
  • advocate for and back federal and state proposals to provide immediate financial relief for students and public universities

All of these demands have either been met or are in the process of being met. 

What do you hope we can achieve in this moment in the fight to defend public education?

During a time when social separation is key, students and faculty must come together to be a unified front during the fight to defend public education. We must all agree on a core set of ideals that benefit students, staff, and the public universities. Getting a large group to agree is hard enough as is, but when you have thousands of people’s futures in the balance, the stakes are raised even more, and emotions can run high. Unity is crucial for our success. 

What are your concerns for the future of public higher education?

The future for higher education has been hanging in the balance for a while, but the coronavirus pandemic has just sped up the process. All you have to do is a simple Google search of “Mount Ida College” to see that private colleges and universities have been struggling for a while. The increasing rates of tuition and decreasing enrollment rates at public universities demonstrate that this issue isn’t just hitting private schools. 

As I mentioned before, remote learning isn’t what students signed up for and the quality of their education is decreasing. When you pair students not getting what they paid for with a national and global financial crisis, odds are we are going to see a decrease in students choosing to get a degree and an increase of cost of tuition if something isn’t done to prevent it. 

How do you think we should move towards winning a debt free future?

Salem State is the sum of all of its parts. Every student and faculty member contributes their little bit of excellence to the community. I am sure this is true at colleges and universities across the State. I don’t want to see my university lose pieces of excellence because they can’t afford to pay for school anymore or the school can’t afford to keep their position. Money shouldn’t be a factor in how excellent my school is. 

Tying into the ideas of unity and the student action at Salem State, we should all come together to create a short, universal list of demands to be presented to all public colleges and universities across our Commonwealth. We need input from students, professors, teachers, maintenance workers, dining hall staff, library personnel, administrators, etc. all across Massachusetts for us to find a solution that works. If people from all public colleges and universities across the State are bombarding our representative with the exact same list of demands, written by us to benefit us, we are more likely to have our demands met. How we react now will determine whether or not we are one step closer to a debt free future. We must act quickly, cohesively, and decisively. The future of higher education is in our hands. Every second matters. 

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