By Caleb Remington
“I really think when students actually step on the Capitol campus something happens and they all get the magnitude of how important it is to be engaged in the civic responsibility of being in a democracy,” said Student Life Director Kris Baier about the annual student rally held in Olympia Feb. 7.
Whatcom Community College’s student government headed to Olympia to attend the rally alongside roughly 15 other community and technical colleges from around the state to raise awareness of student issues.
Baier said the rally is the one time of the year where students get together to voice their concerns directly to the government.
The Council of Unions and Student Programs (CUSP), a council on the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, came up with this year’s motto: “Washington’s great investment.”
“Typically there is a correlation between the more education a society has and the more economic opportunities there are for that society,” Baier said about the motto, adding that Washington’s community and technical college system encompasses around half of a million students.
The rally process begins “when all the students get together in the spring at the Student Voice Academy and develop the agenda for next year,” Baier said. “If a topic gets voted in at the Student Voice Academy, then the next year those topics are what we support and rally around.”
This year’s agenda was composed of three primary goals, said Lucas Nydam, Whatcom’s Student Senate president.
The first goal was to advocate for steady and secure funding for community and technical colleges in Washington in the same way government funding is protected for public grade schools, Nydam said.
The second goal was to find a way to create “some form of [government] revenue and dedicating it to community and technical college funding,” Baier said.
The last objective on the agenda involved “providing financial aid opportunities to undocumented students,” Baier said.
However, one week before the rally took place, the Washington State Senate passed the Washington Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, providing financial aid opportunities for undocumented students.
Baier said the student government executives from each of the represented colleges spent time during the school year trying to refine and create a direct message to the government, specifically their district’s representatives, and the rally is “kind of the pinnacle of it. This is it, it’s a big deal.”
Roughly 250 community and technical college students from around the state sat on the steps inside the Legislative Building rotunda, holding signs reading “Our Tuition, Our Future,” and “Washington’s Greatest Investment” and wearing shirts with their school names on them as the rally began.
Faculty members and students from various colleges, and government officials took turns addressing the students.
The speakers were sporadically interrupted with cheers of agreement and “the wonderful sound of community and technical college students participating in government,” said Sen. Barbara Bailey, a speaker at the rally as well as a chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
Government needs to “step up to the plate” and ensure funding for public higher education while keeping tuition low and the quality of education high, Bailey said.
Marty Cavalluzzi, the President of Pierce College Puyallup, spoke to the students primarily about the importance of keeping tuition affordable.
“Our classes and programs are as diverse as you [students] are. If we continue to educate everyone from all walks of life, we need to make it accessible and affordable to everyone,” Cavalluzzi said.
The importance of student voices from community and technical colleges is underestimated, Cavalluzzi said, adding that these kinds of students make up close to 60 percent of Washington’s public higher education student population.
Cavalluzzi reiterated the importance of “Washington’s greatest investment” by stating that “community and technical college students add around $11 billion to the state’s economy each year.”
The rally ended as the students gathered chanted, “we are Washington’s greatest investment!”
Nydam arranged a meeting with Rep. Vincent Buys from the 42nd district, which includes a large portion of Whatcom County, to discuss the agenda, and put a student’s face to the cause.
Baier said the representatives are more prone to respond to an actual student voicing their concerns in person versus a faculty or board member, because the students directly represent “the fruits of their labor, the students are the benefactors of their support.”
Beginning the meeting, Nydam found common ground with Buys as they both share the same hometown, Lynden. Nydam referred to himself and Buys as “Lynden boys.”
After briefly discussing the issues on the agenda, primarily funding and tuition costs, Buys said, “There’s got to be much more flexibility [in regards to funding] with today’s changing students.”
Buys, a graduate of Bellingham Technical College, said he wants more encouragement and emphasis on obtaining two-year degrees at community and technical colleges, and that society has pushed many students into immediately pursuing a four-year degree at a university after high school.
“People’s lives change quite a bit in two years, let alone four years. If they are in the community and technical college system they have the opportunity to be quite a bit more mobile if life changes,” Buys said.
Another misconception is that it may be difficult for someone to find a job after only obtaining a 2-year degree, Buys said, but “big companies are pulling employees directly out of community and technical colleges, and hospitals often pull directly out of the nursing programs.”
Buys praised the active involvement of students working alongside the government and voicing their concerns in order to nourish and support “Washington’s greatest investment.”