Students exchange experiences on the bus ride back to the City.
It just doesn't make sense to Emmanuelle St. Jean, a Barnard College junior majoring in biology. Without the aid of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), the aspiring doctor would not have been able to afford college. And considering HEOP students tend to have higher graduation rates than the general student body at most universities, she doesn't understand why Governor George Pataki is proposing to cut HEOP funding in half.
"It's like closing down your most successful company," said St. Jean, as she prepared with more than three-dozen Columbia and Barnard students and administrators on February 11 for a day of lobbying in the state capital.
The trip -- sponsored by the Columbia's Office of Government Relations and the Barnard General Counsel's Office -- is an annual one, though this year there was more at stake than usual.
Under Pataki's budget proposal, the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which provides a maximum $5,000 award to New York State students in need, may be restructured so that one-third of the money is held until a student completes his/her degree. The postponement would be troubling for many who count on that money and would be forced to take out additional loans. The governor has also proposed to eliminate entirely the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), which helps Columbia provide SAT preparation, career counseling and tutoring to minority and economically disadvantaged students in grades 7-12 living in the city and surrounding areas.
Assemblyman Daniel O"Donnell, 69th District, meets with students.
Current HEOP funding is $22 million and if the budget passes, it will be sliced in half. Reduced HEOP aid means that many academically successful high school students will be severely limited in their choices for higher education. Some will be denied the opportunity completely.
"If they want us to contribute to society, they have to contribute to us as well," said Michelle Galvez, a Barnard senior who plans to teach in the city when she graduates.
Most legislators believe that only a portion of the proposed cuts can be restored. Because State revenue was well below last year's total, Pataki was faced with the decision of raising taxes or making cuts. Most expect a compromise will be made though a decision will probably not be reached until next fall.
"Our terrific Columbia and Barnard students who receive TAP and HEOP, and the high school students in STEP are the heart of why New York State created these programs," said Ellen S. Smith, assistant vice president and director of Government Relations. "This year's efforts to restore even part of the funding will require students and parents to do more than ever, including contacting their local legislators."
That need is exactly what got more than two-dozen undergraduates up at the crack of dawn to travel to Albany on a day when temperatures barely reached double digits. Government Relations Associate Cathy Dente, who organized the trip, noted that students sacrificed their valuable time because they recognized the urgency of sending a message.
Upon arriving, students spread out in the Legislative Office Building and State Capitol where the offices for New York senators and assemblymen are housed. They met with politicians or representatives from 20 offices, offering personal testimony and pleading for the proposals to be reconsidered. Each student was given a folder of fact sheets and received coaching from Smith and Dente on effective lobbying methods.
Wendy Castillo, CC'04, a Washington Heights native and economics major, is the first in her family to go to college and noted that she fears these cuts will undermine higher education opportunities for her younger siblings. She said that she made the trip to Albany more for their sake than her own.
"They probably won't remember me, but they'll be more aware of the issue," Castillo said of meeting with legislators. "They have to see the people [the cuts] will effect."
David Reid, who works as counsel for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno offered similar advice. "The most important thing is to come here and let your voices be heard," he told students during one meeting. "Get active, register to vote, and don't get cynical."
Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, who represents Columbia in the 69th District, told one group that he too would not have been able to attend college and law school without financial support from the government. He promised to fight the proposed cuts, noting that HEOP is especially important because it "breaks down barriers" for students.
In fact, notes Danielle Wong, associate director for Opportunity Programs and Undergraduate Services at Columbia, HEOP produces some of the most dynamic students on campus. The program, which serves 5,725 students throughout New York State, has 200 enrolled at Columbia and Barnard.
"HEOP students are highly active in student activities and student government. They really participate," said Wong. "Our students show they have a vested interest in being at this school. We provide them with the resources and they shine."
That has been especially true of Danien Martinez, Engineering'04, who benefited from STEP during high school and was only able to come to Columbia because of HEOP. The computer science major and future video game designer is active in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at Columbia and uses his spare time serving as a mentor and counselor for younger HEOP students. He came to Albany prepared to tell his story and with the hope of achieving a specific goal.
"I just want to inspire one legislator to join our cause," said Martinez. "If I can do that, I know the trip will have been worthwhile."
The next Student Lobby Day is Wednesday, April 9, in Washington, D.C. The bus departs on Tuesday, April 8, and returns to Columbia on the evening of April 9. Meals and lodging are provided. Interested students should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or call 854-1116.