Occupy protests spread to US college campuses

By Christine Armario

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 19 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

At Rhode Island College, students have held teach-ins where professors are brought in to give lectures on topics like the history of student movements. Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur, a sociology professor at the school, said faculty are brought in to offer their expertise but participate as equals.

"We have things we can offer by virtue of our study in these areas," Arthur said. "But that doesn't make us any more qualified to speak than they are."

Arthur said it's fairly typical for social movements to have large student participation, in part because they have more time available. But that isn't the case at her school, where a majority of students work and are from working or lower class families.

"We have students that aren't available and they are still making the time to be part of a movement," said Arthur, whose research focuses on student activism.

Debt from college loans and poor job prospects after graduation are two of the main points of contention for student protesters. The unemployment rate for students who graduated from college in 2010 was 9.1 percent, among the highest levels in recent history, according to the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research and policy organization dedicated to making college more affordable. Students graduated with an average of $25,250 debt, 5 percent higher than a year before.

The group Occupy Student Debt, another offspring of the protests, has started a website where students and graduates are posting pictures of themselves with a piece of paper detailing the amount they took out in loans and the amount they still owe. Many students describe taking out tens of thousands of dollars for school, and owing even more because of high interest rates.

"Many people at the protests which I'm going to are out there because of the student debt crisis," said Kyle McCarthy, 29, who started the website.

Like the larger Occupy protests, the students have not articulated specific goals, but say that isn't necessary, at least for the time being.

"If you look at successful social movements, their role has never been to lay out the specifics of policy details," said Guido Girgenti, 19, a sophomore at Occidental College.

He pointed to Martin Luther King, Jr. as one example.

"Dr. King traveled around America dramatizing the moral crisis that was the disenfranchisement of blacks in America," he said. "The Occupy Wall Street movement in the same way is dramatizing the moral crisis of economic injustice and the corporate takeover of democracy."

Girgenti, who has been working with Occupy Colleges, says students are working on a draft statement on a commitment to nonviolence and training organizers.

"Our core student organizers are coming together and asking, how do we make the transition from moment of protest to moment of movement?" Girgenti said.

In order to go from protest to movement, Self said students must shape grievances into demands. He noted that issues like finding a way to lower tuition are complicated by the fact that many fees at public universities are set by individual state boards and legislatures and would be difficult or impossible to address at a federal level.

Arthur, however, said the changes protesters are seeking go beyond fixes like lowering tuition.

"Those things are nice, but it's not going to change fundamentally the things that are at the root of the grievances the movement has," she said. "Those kinds of changes are much harder to enact politically, it's culturally where the change has to happen. And that cultural change is something already happening every day in the encampment, in the participatory nature of the meeting."

At Florida International University, two days of talks by professors and speeches ended with students sharing their stories and participating in group activities.

In one, they divided into groups of five and picked an issue they had to illustrate through a student still life. One group chose the "the balancing act of the average American;" another the "1 percent of students who get to sit in class and pay attention."

One student sat in a chair looking at the professor, while the others were scrambling in the background worried about how to pay and dropping out.

Tarafa, an organizer with the group Seed305, went up to each one asked what they were feeling.

"Backwards," said one.

"Awkward," said another. "It's not enough."

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