When I arrived at K-State in the Fall of 1971, the campus was not ready for their largest class to date of students of color. There were about 300 of us who came to enroll at the campus which then had an enrollment of around 15,000 students.
We were all assigned a faculty or staff mentor for support and a place to process our transition to the overwhelming and often suffocating Caucasian culture. Every week I spent my hour or so with my mentor angrily complaining about a campus that obviously had given very little thought about what Black and Latino students from the hood needed to be “at home” on the campus.
I had 3 or 4 roommates within the first couple of weeks. You see, I was not the roommate of choice for their little baby boy. Chicken a La King? Are you kidding me? Sliced white chicken breast meat on white bread and smothered in yellow gravy? No fried chicken? No greens, no corn bread, no garlic mashed potatoes? Nothing that tasted like or even came close to my momma's cooking. I quickly grew tired of cereal and peanut butter three times a day, and of this strange campus. Every week, I would let my mentor, the Assistant Dean of Student Life, have it. As you might guess, she was Caucasian, and that might have made it easier for me to complain and fuss each week.
There were no greeting cards that looked like my family. And I was not going to send my dad a birthday card with a duck on the front of it. Like my daddy went duck hunting. there was no skin or hair care products that we could use. We couldn't even get a hair cut or our hair "did" any where in Manhattan. It was not easy to find good R&B, or even magazines we might like to loose ourselves in to dull the pain. It was a cold, hard place to be.
I was a radical/student activist wannabe. My role models were Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, and obviously Martin Luther King, Jr. It was just that period of time. We all had a little anger and frustration to share with this mid-American, semi-rural campus.
When I arrived on campus I was wide-eyed, a bit on edge, and wore a kicking afro. I was thrust right into the campus student rights movement as a Freshman. It was a time when students voiced their concerns and challenges with the academic culture. In the background was the civil rights movement , the women's movement, and the Vietnam War.
My attitude was that I wasn’t going to drive all the way from Wichita to Manhattan, KS, to all of those roommate changes, and the chilly environment, and pay tuition, and then not say something. Ah hell no!
We didn't rollover and smile after administrators made decisions without our considerations. We voiced our concerns for just about everything we disagreed with, especially if it affected students of color and all students. Today, I am not proud of how I reacted or responded to some of those heated discussions and meetings. I was unsophisticated, a bit rough around the edges, but I didn't care. They invited me there and they were not prepared for me in the least, and they were going to hear me and LISTEN to me!
In fact, I cursed out one of the vice presidents after he said we could not evaluate faculty for our own faculty handbook. The handbook would provide students a chance to make our own evaluations of who we thought were good teachers and who totally stunk in the classroom. All he did by telling me no, was just embolden me to push and yell harder. We eventually got the faculty evaluation handbook.
After a point, my mentor must have had enough. When I sat down for a session about mid-way the first semester, she spoke up quickly, not like her previous times where in her “touchy-feely” moment she allowed me to vent like a squawking bird. She said, “I have listened to you tell me each week how bad this place is, how racist people are, how cold some of your teachers are, how awful the food is, and on and on.” She said, “I have been patient and have listened to you each week. But I want to suggest something. If this place is ever going to feel anything like home, or if it will ever respond as you want it to, you are going to have to get involved and help us make it better.”
I wasn't smart enough to respond that I did not come to K-State, I did not pay my tuition like every other student, to educate folks about culture and race. I came to learn; I paid my tuition to learn like other students. But I think things were so bad, and I really didn't have much to look forward to if I left and went back home but the hard streets. So I asked her what she meant.
She pulled out the student newspaper and pointed me to an ad asking for applications to serve on the Union Governing Board. She encouraged me to apply and we rehearsed some questions the committee may ask me in the interview.
I applied for the open position on the K-State Union Governing Board. My interview went well. In fact, the committee asked me some of the same questions we had rehearsed. It was some time later that I realized that I had been set up.
I guess my interview went really well. I was invited to serve as a first year student on the board that makes decisions about how the student union operates. Oh, and I went at it. I told the bookstore they had to bring in Mahogany cards from Hallmark, and skin and hair care products. I encouraged the union and residence hall food service to have "soul food" on occasion, and even a Black History Month Soul Food Sunday meal.
Well, everywhere I went on campus, they responded favorably to me. Because of all of this "success", I became involved in nearly every area of extra curricular activities. It became clear that I could make a difference. Early on I realized that this campus was mine also and that I paid my tuition also and I had every right to have some of the conveniences and privileges of white students. It was my campus, too.
I settled in academically as well. I made the dean’s list at the end of my freshman year and was invited into the arts and sciences honor’s program.
Eventually, my anger mellowed. I realized that people would listen to me even more if I had well thought out rationale and solutions that mattered. My senior year I was elected student body president on this predominately Caucasian campus, and became one of the first African American students in the country to be elected by a predominately Caucasian campus to the top rank.
On this once cold, awkward campus, I became the student president. The campus had become my home, my domain, my place to lead and usher in a new era.
Now my children, my brother’s and sister’s children, our friends children, they all attend K-State. I don’t shrug from the reality that i and other’s, helped create a place for my children to call home. No small feat for a rough-edged boy.
Not a bad story.
But I don’t tell this story to brag or boast. I simply want to highlight that students, no matter their personal background, can come to the college campus and learn to be a leader by sharing from their heart how to more effectively create an environment where all students can learn.
I share this story because I am not seeing this kind of passion and earnestness in students today, and I want somehow to show the stark difference between students of the 1960's and 70's and the students of today.
Sadly, student's today are the only consumer group that does not demand their monies worth.(c)
If I were a student today, I would not last one day! I would have the attention of every campus administrator. And while I would not yell and scream, before they left the campus today they would know that I am not happy at all about several major issues and that I am going to develop a plan to activate other students to respond.
Consider this. The amount of student loans taken out last year crossed the $100 billion mark for the first time and total loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion for the first time this year. Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards, reports the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the U.S. Department of Education and private sources (2011).
Students are borrowing twice what they did a decade ago after adjusting for inflation, the College Board reports. Total outstanding debt has doubled in the past five years — a sharp contrast to consumers reducing what's owed on home loans and credit cards.
The third largest loan debt in this country is auto loans. Student loan debt is now larger than both consumer credit card and auto loan debt. Incredible!
The credit risk falls on young people who will start adult life deeper in debt, a burden that could place a drag on the economy in the future.
"Students who borrow too much end up delaying life-cycle events such as buying a car, buying a home, getting married (and) having children," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org.
"It's going to create a generation of wage slavery," says Nick Pardini, a Villanova University graduate student in finance who has warned on a blog for investors that student loans are the next credit bubble — with borrowers, rather than lenders, as the losers.
Next consider this USA Today headline (4/22/2012): The U.S. college class of 2012 is in for a rude welcome to the world of work.
The USA Today article goes on to say, “A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don't fully use their skills and knowledge.
Young adults with bachelor's degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs — waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example — and that's confounding their hopes that a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.
An analysis of government data conducted for the Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for holders of bachelor's degrees. Opportunities for college graduates vary widely.
While there's strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder. Median wages for those with bachelor's degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.
Taking underemployment into consideration, the job prospects for bachelor's degree holders fell last year to the lowest level in more than a decade.
"I don't even know what I'm looking for," says Michael Bledsoe, who described months of fruitless job searches as he served customers at a Seattle coffeehouse. The 23-year-old graduated in 2010 with a creative writing degree.
Initially hopeful that his college education would create opportunities, Bledsoe languished for three months before finally taking a job as a barista, a position he has held for the last two years. In the beginning he sent three or four resumes day. But, Bledsoe said, employers questioned his lack of experience or the practical worth of his major. Now he sends a resume once every two weeks or so.
Bledsoe, currently making just above minimum wage, says he has received financial help from his parents to help pay off student loans. He is now mulling whether to go to graduate school, seeing few other options to advance his career. "There is not much out there, it seems," he said.
His situation highlights a widening but little-discussed labor problem. Perhaps more than ever, the choices that young adults make earlier in life — level of schooling, academic field and training, where to attend college, how to pay for it — are having a long-lasting financial impact.
"You can make more money on average if you go to college, but it's not true for everybody," says Harvard economist Richard Freeman, noting the growing risk of a debt bubble with total U.S. student loan debt surpassing $1 trillion. "If you're not sure what you're going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college” (USA Today, 4/22/2012).
Then we consider, graduation rates of student’s color, and especially for Latino and African American men. If we consider that the campuses, despite the looming digital age or still building massive infrastructure, expanding their power-plants, and all on the backs of students, or much of it on the backs of students.
And what disturbs me is that much of these decisions are being made by leaders who cut their teeth in the student movement of the 60’s and 70’s. They should know better. Or at least remember the day.
But why should they. Students are not demanding their monies worth. Oh, there are a few student government folks who are asking tough questions, but by in large there are little to know discussion happening around the country. Yes, there have been sit-in’s and demonstrations at some community colleges on the West coast, but they were quickly shut down.
I’m concerned in many ways about the lack of student leadership on these and many more issues on the American college campus. As I travel the country, I am amazed at how many students raise their hands when I ask how many students in student government or greek organizations have a 2.5 and below. I am amazed when students only want to ask me how they can get their campus president to let them drink until they are even more stupid than when they started. I am amazed at how tranquil students are as they are being screwed and it is as if few care.
Yes, I am really concerned about the current condition, the daze and mind-numbing activities that seem to keep students oblivious to the massive changes developing around them.
But what I am more concerned about is that the college campus is where I became a man. Where I learned how to voice my opinions and learned how to lead a campus to change. It’s where I learned how to work with other races and cultures of people to bring about peaceful solutions to age old conditions.
But I have not stopped there. I continue to take what I have learned and I use it today to make the space around me better than it was when I arrived.
So my question is, if students are not learning how to be leaders now, when will they learn? And if students are not learning how now to cognitively think through major issues and challenges, when will they learn? And if students are not learning this now, and the rest of the country is going to hell in a hand basket, will they stay drunk and drugged and just let the country fall of the cliff?
Don’t students care about whether they will have social security or not? They they consider the cost of health care when they have children? What will urban education be like when you need it? Will crime continue to rise? Will we determine our oil and gas solutions? Will we learn to clean the air and the soil?
Oh, I know someone is going to reply that there are many students who care and are engaged. Yes, I know, having been chair of the mid-west Rhodes Scholar selection committee for 6 years. I know there are some brilliant young people who give a rip about our future. But friends, there are simply not enough of them. And if the majority of their friends are barista’s, server’s and taxi drivers, they will spend nearly the rest of their adult lives paying off college loan debt.
I am not suggesting a major campus burning of buildings, or a curse out the administrators session. God forbid. I was childish. I am challenging those who work with students and students themselves to consider how they can mobilize massive numbers of students to get involved in this election year, get involved with their state and local government elections, and share to share their deep concerns about the future and the future of their children. I am challenging us to have some hard conversations at the college and university level about the future of higher education, about how we can re-imagine a more cost effective way to educate people who need desperately need skilled jobs.
Finally, I am asking us to go deep and ask ourselves some hard questions: If I don’t care about social justice for others, do I at least care about social justice for myself? And why am I not demanding more for my money?
Last month I posted a list of 10 things students could do to mobilize their campus. The list was produced by the Campus Election Engagement Project, a nonpartisan effort founded by Soul of a Citizen author Paul Loeb to help campuses involve students in the election. The Project works primarily through the state affiliates of Campus Compact and other partners like Youth Service America and other higher education allies. For more info contact firstname.lastname@example.org or go to http://www.paulloeb.org/College/spring2012.html for the original. I encourage you to read this blog and consider how to get involved.
And I encourage you to read Soul of a Citizen by Paul Loeb. it is a must read!
Hillel was a famous Jewish religious leader, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Renowned within Judaism as a sage and scholar, he was the founder of the House of Hillel school for Tannaim (Sages of the Mishnah) and the founder of a dynasty of Sages who stood at the head of the Jews living in Israel until roughly the fifth century of the Christian Era.
He is popularly known as the author of two sayings: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'?"
And "If not now, when? And I add, If not you, who?