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Youth in Action: Carmen Berkley, the United States Student Association
Carmen Berkley pays $900 every month in student loan debt. That's more than many recent college grads pay in rent.
When she was in college, Berkley began to see the cost of tuition as the biggest obstacle to higher education for students from moderate- and low-income families. That's why she got involved with the United States Students Association. USSA is the oldest national student-led organization dedicated to students' interests. In the wake of a historic election, the organization has focused on increasing access to higher education by fighting tuition hikes and lobbying for more forgiving financial aid legislation.
Now, just a year after graduating from college, 23-year-old Berkley is the president of USSA. She says it's a brand new day for student issues. "Now that so many people came out and voted, we can hold [our elected officials] accountable," she says. If she's right, that could mean significant strides in higher education accessibility—the kind of hope many students need now more than ever.
Under the dark cloud of economic recession, states have slashed budgets across the board, resulting in the sharpest tuition hikes in years. Many students' college futures are becoming more and more uncertain.
This has only been compounded by the serious hurdles financial aid has faced over the past eight years, says Berkley. "Higher education hasn't been on anyone's top priority list," she says. "Most of our programs have been on the chopping block or underfunded" since well before the current recession.
Under the Bush administration, Berkley felt that trying to build a relationship between student groups and the government was a lost cause. "There was absolutely no communication coming from the White House talking to us about what we care about."
The Obama administration says things will be different and that it will make higher education a priority. One initiative the president has discussed is a tax credit giving students $4,000 in tuition in exchange for 100 hours of community service. "We think that's a great program," says Berkley, "but there are a lot of other programs that have not been funded at all."
Berkley's organization has put together a wish list of economic measures that will help students. USSA urges Obama to restore the budget for the Pell Grant (which faces a shortfall of $3 billion because of inaction by Congress) and then increase the grant's maximum amount by $500 to $5,200.
Other USSA recommendations for helping students struggling to pay tuition include increasing work-study and college retention program funding, providing extensions on repayment of federal student loans and increasing investment in community colleges.
Just because there's a new administration in the White House, Berkley says, doesn't mean change will happen on its own. That's why she urges students to be proactive and go after the change they want—whatever that specific change might be.
"The first step is identifying what issue burns you in your belly," she says. "For some people it's higher education, so they should [work with] USSA.... Some people aren't in school, so they should [work with] the League of Young Voters and organize on the local level."
Clearly, Berkley is a strong proponent of grassroots organizing. There are so many grassroots groups out there, she says, that there's a place for absolutely everyone. And for people who want to start their own campaigns, now is as good a time as any.
USSA offers on-campus training in how to launch and sustain a campaign. Whether it's getting emergency contraception on campus, securing domestic partner benefits for faculty members or achieving a living wage for university employees, USSA can visit your campus and teach you how to get results.
The organization's upcoming National Legislative Conference is another way to get your foot in the door. The conference, which takes place in Washington, DC, March 21-24, is a training ground for students interested in lobbying on the local level.
Berkley says that now is the time to get involved, whether you're looking to volunteer or to get paid doing something you love. "Nonprofits have been put on the back burner because no one's been prioritizing our issues," she says. "But now, nonprofits have the opportunity to leverage their power."
For recent college grads facing a shrinking job market, getting paid to do grassroots work is easier said than done. Many nonprofits (including USSA) do have job openings, but it's still tough out there for an aspiring organizer. That's why the free training opportunities provided by USSA are so valuable, as are the campaigns that students run on campus, which can sometimes help them start new organizations.
Talking to Berkley, it seems that even a suffering economy can't stand in the way of grassroots groups this year. "I really think that this is the time for our organizations to shine," she says. "Because this is the first time in a long time people have cared about what we say. I feel really optimistic. And I think students are really excited too. I've never seen people so excited to actually feel like they can make change."
Suemedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributor to WireTap.
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