I was sitting at a round table in Sacramento at 10 a.m., peering across the table at the lobbying team of undergraduate and graduate students and frantically going over budgetary figures for my section of the presentation, when Lina, the staff representative for Senator Lou Correa, welcomed us to his office. Game time, baby.
Less than three days earlier, I got on a charter bus with a host of other UCI undergraduate students and student leaders to cover the eighth annual UC Student Association (UCSA) Student Lobby Conference (SLC) from Feb. 27 to March 1.
Quick background: the Student Lobby Conference drew students from every UC except Davis (which isn’t part of UCSA) in record numbers as students have answered the call of economic strain: the first SLC garnered 120 students, a number that was nearly quadrupled this year. UCI had a banner year for representation, mustering over 80 undergraduate and graduate students, topping last year’s count of about 51 students: the number can be partially attributed to UC Office of the President’s financial assistance of around $2500 for transportation to each UC in efforts to facilitate activism for the Mar. 1 lobbying and protest.
The undergraduate students were a mix of interns in the ASUCI office of the Executive Vice President as well as students who came as part of the Lobby Core class, a 1.3-unit course that aims to “teach students skills and techniques, such as public speaking, conducting a business meeting, making a presentation, lobbying strategies, and much more,” according to its online description. Part of the class’s curriculum involves participation in SLC each year.
The dozen graduate students represented Associated Graduate Students and contributed members to teams of lobbying undergraduates. They sat in not only to represent the graduate interest in funding higher education but to point out the importance of graduate research in acquiring grants and earning income for the state that would allow more grad students to attend UCs, which would mean more Teaching Assistants and thus more classes for undergraduate students.
The interdependence of each level of higher education meant we weren’t just asking for money while leaving room for suggestions on where we could cut – we presented a united front to fund the whole educational enchilada.
I quickly learned that the plan of attack for the weekend would leave little room for idle time. The conference packed a tight schedule of instructional workshops to educate students in the current plight of higher education. I sat in on a few of the larger-scale workshops, but the sheer volume of information tightly packed into two days of lectures impressed on me how little the average student keeps abreast of such important issues and how easy it would be to host workshops like these as teach-ins right here at UCI (hint hint, ASUCI).
I discovered that most of the attending UCI student lobbyists were freshmen, whose youth may have horrified me a wee bit, but these green students were bursting with enthusiasm to get down and dirty in conversation with their legislative reps. I was impressed by their fervor for student justice and pride as UCI students, which they rigorously displayed during meals when each school chanted and cheered to make their presence known. Witnessing these doe-eyed first-years stomp their feet and throw up the “zot” brought tears to this old Anteater’s eyes.
In my request to cover and sit in on a lobbying, I was encouraged to become a note-taker, a vaunted scribe to document the discussion for posterity. Follow-up visits, I learned, are key to influencing (pressuring) legislators into hearing our voice. My team included a gaggle of first-year students: first-year undeclared major Patricia Lai, first-year biology major Dillon Gamboa and first-year philosophy major Ellen Taylor. I would depend on these brave freshmen to carry the conversation with their one and a half quarters of Lobby Core training that trumped my legislative experience watching “The West Wing.”
Patricia opened the discussion and we jumped in to present our chosen segment of the overall presentation. As it was conceived, we would effortlessly transition from emphasizing the importance of the California Master Plan for Higher Education, then plaintively stress the plight of the targeted Cal Grants, discuss the dwindling higher education budget and propose our solution: AB 656, a tax on oil extraction that would provide an estimated $1 billion for all higher education in California.
My fellow lobbying freshmen were remarkable in their chosen subjects, but I was sweating as it came time for me to discuss our budget woes. Fact: per-student funding from the state has dropped from $15,000 in 1991 to $7,500 in 2008. Fact: I forgot this as soon as it was my turn to speak. I’m afraid to admit, dear readers, that I choked in the room, stuttering for a good ten seconds as I ransacked my brain for relevant data. I was saved by my team’s graduate student, Erik Tollerud, who jumped into the discussion.
Our discussion ultimately boiled down to, “Where will the funds come from?” and though we pushed AB 656, Lina was attentive to our concerns but passive in committing without Correa in the office. I found this reception unfortunate considering Correa’s record of voting heavily in favor of education, but it reflected an incredible resistance to taxation we knew was widespread in the California legislature, which is incredibly difficult in the best of times. Thanks, Proposition 13.
We exited our room of trial flushed with adrenaline. Patricia felt empowered by the discussion, but was a little disappointed we didn’t have a belligerent senator with whom she could’ve brought her arguing skills to bear. Dillon felt that, with more time together, we could prepare a better flow so we wouldn’t miss a beat. Ellen felt that, despite our preparation, we could always use more, and valued Erik’s addition to the team for being “so knowledgeable.” Next time, she said, she would work on not being intimidated. These senators are just other people, after all.
Our lunch was cut short as a flood of students surged past our café window, bearing signs and shouting the recognizable “Whose University?? OUR UNIVERSITY!!” We looked at each other and stood up in silent agreement, donning our jackets and darting out the door to join the throng of our fellow students.