Students lobby, vow to use voting power

WASHINGTON – “We’re fired up!” That was the chant of the more than 350 delegates to the 35th National Grassroots Legislative Conference of the United States Students Association (USSA) here March 26.

The four-day legislative conference, with its numerous panels, workshops, regional meetings and community caucuses, showed that students across the country have more than enough reason to be fired up. USSA, the nation’s oldest and largest student organization, representing millions of college students, has a unique role to play in making sure that student voices are heard in the halls of Congress, the Department of Education and the White House.

This year students headed to the offices of their respective senators and representatives on the National Student Lobby Day. The USSA organized the action day to demand that the federal government “honor its responsibility to commit the necessary funding for inclusive, quality, affordable higher education,” according to USSA President Rebecca Wasserman and Vice-President Ajita Talwalker in their welcome letter to the conference participants.

During the opening session of the conference, Talwalker asked the crowded room, “Who here has experienced tuition hikes on their campuses?” Hands shot up throughout the room.

She continued with a series of questions on budget cuts, attacks on access and control of student resources, funding deficits for grants, and slashes in student services. In each case the response was the same – the clear majority of students from all over the country are facing the same problems.

Wasserman followed with her “state of the association” speech in which she stressed the importance of a student movement with “a collective voice and a proactive vision.” Outlining some of the important campaigns in which USSA has been involved, Wasserman singled out the fight for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which contains important provisions for grant funding, recruitment and retention programs, child care and other important programs.

She also highlighted the work of the association in promoting the rights of all students graduating from high school to have access to higher education regardless of immigration status. The DREAM Act that USSA is aggressively promoting would guarantee this.

Conference workshops emphasized successful organizing strategies on campus.

“When I get back I want to set up a meeting to talk about what we learned, what we did on lobby day and what we can do to change this,” said Erica Walker, a student at Chicago’s Malcolm X Community College and a candidate for vice-president of her student body. “We need to fight for our schools [and to do that] “they need to know what’s going on.”

“It is an act of leadership to get students to register to vote,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in her welcome to the conference, “and speak for themselves through their vote.”

USSA is organizing its member campuses and affiliates, training students on how to do just that. “Working on elections is connected strategically to all the issues we care about,” Portia Pedro, USSA organizing director, said during the Get Out the Student Vote session. “Voting is one of the many tactics that we can use to bring the change in the world that we want to see.”

This point was not lost on many of the conference participants who feel a real sense of urgency on their campuses about the coming elections. “They sit at the lunchroom tables and they discuss these things,” said Walker. “They say ‘y’all need to get ready because Bush has a whole set of new rules.’” And ready they are. “The battle lines are clear,” declared Talwalker. “This week is our week.”

The author can be reached at jessie@yclusa.org.