Thursday, March 26, 2015

Where Do My Tuition Dollars Go?

The University of Rochester Students Association in recent years has put on a "5K Challenge", in which students can submit proposals of what they would do to improve our campus with $5,000. This year, the winning proposal with 790 votes of our 5,000 plus student body, decided that what our campus was missing was sleeping pods in the quiet section of Gleason Library. The plan, which has been it seems half implemented thus far, is to place eight sleeping pods in Gleason for students to sleep in when they want to spend all night in the library. Aside from the obvious problem with encouraging students to pull all nighters in the library, the implementation of this plan speaks to a larger problem with American universities that I've begun to notice after spending several months at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

American institutions compete to provide students the best educational experience that they can, but how much is that educational experience enhanced by a rock climbing wall, smoothie bars, and late night panini's? At Trinity College in Dublin, there are no dining halls, no food plans, and very basic student amenities. Part of this is possible because Trinity is located in the heart of Dublin, where students have easy access to a variety of restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores in the city centre. Education in Ireland is also, at every institution, free. I've lived off campus, as do most students studying at Trinity, during my time in Ireland. I don't find it particularly hard to make it to the grocery store and cook my own meals. Students don't complain about a lack of food options on campus, despite there being no formal student eating areas, just small cafes and restaurants that operate independently of the university in their facilities.

I think that we need to ask ourselves what we are paying for when we look at American higher education. Obviously for a school like the University of Connecticut which is in a rural area and Northeastern in the heart of Boston, there are different practical limitations on being able to be sufficient of your University in terms of food and amenities. I think food is the best example because it is very easy to see where we are getting gipped. The University of Rochester offers a variety of meal plans to students. The plans which seem to be the most popular are the declining balance meal plan. When you purchase for instance the option A Declining plan which offers you the largest declining balance, you pay $2,765 per semester. Does this mean you are getting $2,765 on your meal plan? No, because these plans do not work dollar for dollar. You only receive $2,155 in declining balance. Where does that extra $610 go? It is presumably for the upkeep of the dining facilities. If everyone at the University of Rochester purchased that meal plan, the University would be making upwards of 3 million dollars out of the dining process. Not all students end up choosing this meal plan, as many opt to live off campus as they get older due to the astronomical cost of housing at the University. I understand that due to the dining facilities that are provided there is a level of money that they need to pay their workers and keep everything running smoothly. I do not, however, find this explanation as plausible after having spent five minutes in our campus "market" called Hillside. Hillside is a small grocery store that provides food to students at outrageous prices and at low quality. The fruit purchased from hillside often expires much quicker than usual and you purchase it at prices that are far higher than what you would see at a typical grocery store. For example, the frozen dinners that are very popular with students cost approximately $7 at Hillside. You can purchase these same dinners for $3-4 at a regular grocery store.

It seems like at every turn the University is there to take some more of your money, whether it be meal plans, or housing, a whole separate and frustrating issue, given that we pay large sums of money for housing that is totally sub par. Last year upon moving me into my dorm room my father's fiancé was horrified to realize that even after she scrubbed my floor with a rag and cleaning solution (thanks Christina!), that the hair she had seen was actually glazed into the linoleum, which is nothing to say for the cinderblock walls that really provide a cozy and prison-esque atmosphere for students.

It is all of this and my $60,000 a year tuition that makes it seem so frivolous to be spending $5,000 a year on things that we don't need. I appreciate the Student's Association's effort to better our campus, but if they really wanted to make our campus better, than they should work on spending $5,000 on scholarships for students that are struggling to pay for our ever rising cost of tuition instead of spending more money on unnecessary amenities. Maybe we are going about things the wrong way in the US--we should be focusing on spending tuition dollars not on frivolous additions to our already tricked out campuses in comparison with the rest of the world, but on making sure that students actually have the potential to reap the benefits of the amazing facilities our campus already has to offer.

I don't know how the budget for the University of Rochester works and I don't know how exactly my tuition dollars are spent. Rochester is also by no means the only university with rising tuition costs spending money at times on questionable campus enhancements (do NOT get me started on the giant touchscreen TV things in the library). It is just so much cheaper to live and eat off campus, maybe we are doing it wrong. Maybe we should let students be independent and not force them to live inside an overpriced campus bubble. With the astronomical tuition costs in the US I think we need to rethink our approach to educational facilities. Part of what is so frustrating is that there is no transparency. Where do my tuition dollars really go? I really couldn't tell you. I think that increasing transparency could be the first step in moving towards a system that is actually affordable for students. Having spent three months as an independent European student I don't feel that a lack of campus facilities such as dining halls or dorms (Trinity has limited on campus student housing) has impacted my experience at all. We need to reflect on what we are really getting from universities and what their responsibility to provide to students should be. In my opinion, the responsibility of universities should first and foremost be education, everything else is walking a thin line between essential and unnecessary.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson: How Do We Move Forward from Tragedy?

Five often misunderstood facts about Ferguson:
1. Michael Brown did commit a crime before the altercation with Officer Wilson. He stole a box of cigarillos in what the police characterized as a “strong-arm robbery”, the monetary value of which totaled $48.99.
2. There was no trial. There were grand jury proceedings to determine whether or not there was probable cause to indict Officer Wilson on criminal charges. 
3. There are conflicting witness accounts. Several witness accounts line up with a story presented by Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson who was with him during the incident, but there are others that align more with Officer Wilson’s version of events. 
4. The grand jury which decided there was no probable cause was made up of six white men, three white women, two black women and one black man. This racial makeup is similar to the racial makeup of St. Louis County itself. Nine votes are needed to indict.
5. The grand jury investigation was atypical of usual investigations of the same nature, taking three months to deliberate and present evidence when a decision is usually reached within a day on any particular case.
6. The grand jury is not the only investigation under way--the F.B.I. and the Justice Department are both pursuing civil rights investigations in regards to Ferguson and the shooting.

Several things jump out at me when looking at the tragic death of Michael Brown. First, the punishment does not fit the crime. Brown did not deserve to be shot for robbing a convenience store of less than $50. That is not to say that Brown was guiltless in this incident, but that he was a teenager, and sometimes teens make mistakes and do stupid things such as rob a convenience store, or walk in the middle of the street, which is what Brown was doing when Officer Wilson approached him. 

Second, from what I have heard and seen it seems to me like the real outrage here aside from tragic loss of life should be lack of justice. In particular, because the prosecutor released all of the evidence the grand jury saw, we are able as individuals to form decisions for ourselves. Usually, grand jury proceedings are secret, however, in this case, all evidence and testimony was released after the trial. This means that the "the jury knows more than you do" argument isn't valid. I've looked at the evidence, and I believe that there was probable cause for a trial, and it troubles me that this particular jury did not find it so. 

Third, I don't think we should overthrow the legal or law enforcement systems, I just don't think that's the problem, I think individual people are the problem. I don't have a problem with a grand jury investigation, however I do think that the anomalies in this particular investigation are troubling. What I find more troubling, however, is the willingness of people jump blindly on the side of Brown or the side of Wilson, and to not consider the facts for themselves. And frankly, I do not know who to believe, which is why I think there should have been a real trial. I think that we need reform in our legal system but I don't think that the problem is the actual formalities of the system. I think the problem is a lack of racial sensitivity and cognizance of racial issues that plague our country. We need to work together, people of all races, to ensure that we do not have more instances of tragedy and racial violence in our country. I strongly resent being told that white people are the problem here, because I don't think there need to be sides. Yes, it is white people that perpetuate racism, but it is not all white people, it is only those who are too ignorant to know any better or people who are too hateful to change. So in the aftermath of an outrage like this, I think it is important to show that we can work together to achieve something better for future Michael Browns, and to not divide and point fingers. This is not to say that this is an attitude taken by many black people, it is definitely the minority, but it is something that I encountered and I thought was relevant to discuss. 

Fourth, something that seems out of place to me about the entire phenomenon of Ferguson, is why this particular case? If we are going to be outraged about the failings of our legal system to effectuate change and the tragic loss of life of black youth why wait until now? While this stands out to me, what is important is that this time, we don't back down. We cannot let these racial issues be subdued again and fall out of the national consciousness. Trayvon Martin's death incited riots as well, but we were not able to effectuate any change, and we are left with a system that as described by the Congressional Black Caucus, is failing young black men time after time. 

Finally, I think as I articulate these thoughts I've come to the realization that maybe I will not be able to fully understand. I cannot possibly understand what it is like as an African-American to carry the burden of centuries of racism and watch as people of my race are incarcerated, murdered, and subject to inequality that still plagues this country today. I can't understand what it is like to be black because I am not, but I can understand that the journey to racial equality is not over, and that everyone in this country needs to step up and help to put a stop to egregious violations of the principles of justice, tolerance, and equality this country was founded on. Our youth are dying--not black youth, but our youth, because we maybe be white, black, hispanic, asian, or any other race you identify with, but ultimately, we are all American, and we as Americans have a duty to protect and preserve the lives of our fellow citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, and we aren't doing a very good job. It is time to step up and realize that we are at a turning point of civil rights in this country, and we can stand idly by while inequality and injustice permeate, or we can stand up and fight for our rights and the rights of our fellow citizens. 

The information from this post was taken from the following sources:
New York Times

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Voter ID Laws: Unjust, Unfair, and Unconstitutional--Fight for Your Right to Vote.

I've spent the last hour seething in my room over The Daily Show episode from last night that featured a segment about the new voter ID laws that have been put in place since in Stewart's words, "the gutting of the voting rights act" by the Supreme Court. Watching it, it wasn't information I didn't already know, but the format of the information in the typical succinct Daily Show format, reignited my fire over the issue of voter ID laws. Wanting to fact check Jon Stewart's information, I immediately looked up as much information I could about voter fraud in the United States. In accordance with my expectations, I came across several articles that identify the utter lack of voter fraud in the United States. It is one of those situations where politicians are saying something, and it is just undoubtedly false. When you have nonpartisan research groups and even papers oft described as right leaning telling you that what the Republican politicians triumphing voting ID laws are telling you about voting fraud is wrong, it's time to listen. 

If you don't know what a voter ID law is, then you are not the only one. What sounds like something that could make sense, in effect disenfranchises voters that do not have the means or funds necessary to obtain government issued photo identification. The laws set up restrictions on voting on the basis of requiring multiple forms of ID or photo forms of identification at the polls. This is just not feasible for many people at lower income levels that do not have multiple forms or any type of photo identification to present. For example, in Ohio, a driver's license is $23. It is then $25.75 for renewal. Including the renewal, that is $48.75 (Found on the Ohio BMV Website).  When you make less than $30,000 a year, you do not have the luxury of spending $48.75 on an ID, the only purpose of which you would use for voting. You don't need a license in general because often these individuals cannot afford cars, so a license doesn't serve a purpose besides voting. 

These laws thus clearly disproportionately affect low income individuals, racial minorities, students, the elderly. 11% of US citizens, equivalent to 21 million Americans, do not have a government issue photo ID. Approximately 25% of African Americans, compared to 8% of White Americans do not posses government issued photo ID. Of Americans who are over the age of 65, 18% do not posses a government issued photo ID. All of these people under these laws would not be able to vote (Statistics from the ACLU). Do we really want to disenfranchise 11% of the population, and disproportionately effect minority, elderly, and student voting? 

The answer, is yes. That is exactly what the people creating these laws want to do, and it is infuriating. You should be angry that Republicans don't want you to vote. If you are a young Republican, you should be even angrier. I'm not saying that you should vote for a Democrat, but I don't think anyone should vote for any individual who supports disenfranchising large populations of the American people, regardless of whether they are a Democrat or Republican. Republicans or any Democrats for that matter, who support these laws, don't deserve our votes. 

It astounds me that the party that claims to be the true American patriots, thinks that they are being patriotic when they disenfranchise potential voters. They claim to celebrate the Constitution, but they blatantly disregard 1st, 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th, all of which protect our right to vote. Where is your love of the Constitution now? Why are some amendments more important than others? These are questions we should be asking anyone who supports voter identification laws that so blatantly disenfranchise large numbers of voters.

Protect your right to vote, and fight to protect the rights of others whose votes are being taken from them unfairly, unjustly, and unconstitutionally by misguided and deceptive politicians. 

(Image from the ACLU)

Further reading: 
Washington Post article on Voter Fraud
Jon Stewart's Daily Show segment on voter ID laws
ABC News Voter Fraud information
Forbes Editorial on Voter Fraud
NYU Study on Voter Fraud
Daily Show Segment on Voter ID Laws

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Don't Tell Me How To Dress: Thoughts on Feminism and Halloween

A week or so ago I read an article entitled "Don't Call Me a Basic Bitch--I Can Love Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Still Be Extraordinary". The article talked about the stereotyping of young females who get the label "basic bitch" just for drinking fall themed coffee. The point was that everyone, in this case young women, have so many more dimensions than just being a pumpkin spice latte drinkers.

I think this ties in well to some of the controversies surrounding another fall event--Halloween. Halloween has become a holiday riddled with controversies about what kinds of costumes are appropriate and inappropriate. Some are obviously outrageous and shouldn't be condoned (i.e. dressing up for example as a Mexican, using your costume to make fun of someone else's culture), however, with women's costumes in particular, I think the lines get significantly more blurry. Prominent among the world of women's costumes is the "Sexy _______ (fill in the bank)". You can be a sexy cop, a sexy nurse, or a sexy John Oliver (as Oliver pointed out on his show with significant amusement). These sexy costumes often get slammed by feminists as being degrading and objectifying. There are whole websites dedicated to "Taking Back Halloween" and offering less stereotypical costumes to women.

I think, however, that there is another way to look at these sexy Halloween costumes. What is wrong with having one night where (within reason) women can dress up in a way that they wouldn't usually? If you want to go out, feel confident, and wear something "sexy", what is so wrong with that? I think that instead of seeing these costumes as degrading, there is a way to see them as empowering. As a young female, it's a commonly accepted idea that Halloween is the one time where it is okay to dress in a more risqué manner than you would usually. If I want to go out and show more skin than I usually do, it's not only my right to do that (freedom of expression), but it's counter productive for feminists to criticize women for their costume choices. The whole point of feminism is to advocate for the rights of women--so why shouldn't one of those rights be allowing women to dress how they want, whatever way that is, and not be objectified. Women certainly shouldn't be condemning other women for their costume choices.

If wearing a sexy Halloween costume makes me feel confident, then that doesn't mean I'm just doing it for someone else, it means that I as an individual have the capacity to derive benefit from the way I look. Every time women dress up it doesn't mean that they are doing it for other people. I think it is very possible, and know from personal experience, that dressing well, whatever that means for us individually, can give women an added confidence boost even disregarding the opinions of others. Wear what makes you feel comfortable, not what other people say should make you feel comfortable.

I think that the Halloween issue with costumes plays into a larger issue confronting the feminist movement today. Women need to stop condemning other women for not fitting into their view of a feminist. Feminism should mean women can wear whatever they want without fear of objectification by men or women. Feminism should mean that we as women support other women's decisions of what to do with their bodies, whether that means what they are wearing or who they are sleeping with. Feminism doesn't have to mean rejecting all of society's ideas about beauty or sexiness, it just means acknowledging that those ideas don't define women. Dressing in a sexy Halloween costume doesn't mean you can't also be a feminist.

I'm not saying women shouldn't wear clothes on Halloween or that there should be an overwhelming amount of skin being revealed, but within reason, I think that it's my own prerogative to dress "slutty" or "not slutty" on Halloween, and I think it's the job of other women to support my decision, and make one for themselves. If I want to dress up as Jane Goodall one night and a sexy nurse the next, I shouldn't get judged any differently, except maybe to say that Jane Goodall costume might be a little bit more creative than a sexy nurse. The point is, I can be a feminist dressed as Jane Goodall and a feminist dressed as a sexy nurse--either way, I'm still a complex individual that can't be defined by how I dress on one night of the year.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Published on Thought Catalog!

After several submissions of my posts I was finally published on the website Thought Catalog! Check out the post of my article "Cleveland Is Really The Comeback City" here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Income Inequality and the Need For a Living Wage

I recently watched a Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment where Oliver breaks down income inequality, specifically focusing on the estate tax. Amid the humor Oliver makes some very serious criticisms of the American system and the unwillingness of the United States citizenry to believe income inequality should be a talked about issue. One comment he made was particularly important, "America now has a system where wealth is dispersed as a lottery of birth". With the experience I have had through volunteering in an urban community, I have seen first hand that this is so true. Coming from an upper middle class family with two parents who are lawyers, I won the income "lottery" so to speak. Sure, I have tried hard in school and earned a spot at my university, but I have been afforded so many advantages that people who are born in urban communities in Rochester are not. I have two parents, both of whom work, but always had enough time to encourage me to read, to play, to exercise, to experience and question the world around me. Someone born into a low income family in Rochester is often neglected by their parents during their formative years--not because these parents are bad parents, but simply because these parents are working long hours at one, two, or sometimes even three jobs just to pay the bills. I went to a public high school where the graduation rate is upwards of 90% and we had ample teachers, school supplies, computers, textbooks, and a new school levy was passed almost every year. Students facing public school in Rochester are looking at a graduation rate of around 40%, teachers unequipped to handle the amount of students, a lack of sufficient school supplies and textbooks, and many other challenges that hinder them from even graduating, let alone going to a college like the University of Rochester, despite its close proximity.

So a kid from a low income neighborhood in Rochester is poorly prepared for school, and often drops out. Even if the student doesn't drop out, what is the next step? They can't afford or don't have the means necessary to attend college. They have a high school diploma, but that doesn't cut it in the modern economy. They get a job wherever they can just to sustain basic life necessities. They work hard. Maybe they wait tables, maybe they sweep the halls of the schools they used to attend. Maybe they get a bit of job training and break into the health care aid industry. Regardless of how hard they work doing jobs that need to get done, they don't get paid a wage that allows them to live above the poverty line. Hard working people doing jobs that are necessary for society to function, should get paid a wage that they can actually live on. This is the difference between the minimum wage and a living wage, something that is hard to understand for people who have never had to struggle to pay the bills.

My grandfather was a mail man and my grandmother was a hairdresser who during the holidays worked for Honey Baked Ham (a local company). With their combined incomes, they were able to send three kids to college and support four children. They have finally retired and have settled in a suburban area on the west side of Cleveland. Their four children have all had successful careers that have enabled to them to have families and send their own kids to college. Today,  it would be so much harder to achieve this level of success without a college education. 

People who work in the service field such as my grandparents today don't make nearly enough money to afford them the lifestyle they could have had 40 years ago. The income gap keeps growing and it has reached unparalleled levels of discrepancy between those at the top and bottom. What Oliver points out in his segment is that it is becoming harder and harder for individuals to increase their means. Despite putting in hard work at the jobs that are available to them, people are not able to provide for themselves and their families. Here lies the central fault in the argument that people who live below the poverty line should just "work harder" to achieve more: we need people work at gas stations, to work in super markets, to cut our hair, to clean our houses. It is not relevant to say that people should just find be better jobs, because if they did, there would be no one to do other essential jobs that get paid low wages. This again, is the concept of a living wage. 

Income inequality is a real problem. It is not class warfare. It is simply showing that we are increasingly becoming a country of haves and have nots, even though there are hard working people who fall into the have not category. I will conclude this with one relevant anecdote. The people who are hesitant to talk about income inequality are often people that feel people on welfare are just using the government coffers to not work. I recently had an experience with a woman who came into the organization that I work for with a problem that disproves that theory. She had just gotten a new job, but the employer didn't provide health insurance because it was a temp agency, and she had chronic health issues. With the job, she made too much money to go on welfare and collect Medicaid funding. She was faced with the question of whether to be employed and not be able to pay medical bills, or to stay unemployed and be eligible for Medicaid. She didn't want to take money from the government, but in order to have access to medical care she had to be unemployed and collect Medicaid. What would you say to that woman--too bad? Sorry, your low wages that don't pay your bills are just going to have to cut it because Medicaid is a handout? We need to start taking steps to ensure that people who do important jobs are actually able to provide for themselves and their family. I think establishing a living wage will set us on the right track to solving that problem and decreasing income inequality. 

Why Everyone Should Volunteer in College

This finals week I was plagued by two exams, two ten page papers, and one 20 page paper. The word "stressed" doesn't really cover it. I had done okay my first three semesters at school, but this was supposed to be the semester that I really excelled. I spent countless hours in the library, even pulling the occasional all nighter. Despite the stress and the time consuming studying and writing, I still made time to head down to the Eastern Service Workers Association in Rochester to help distribute food to families in need on Friday morning before my finals. I was agitated on the car ride there, stressed about my impending exams, but when I got there, I didn't even notice. I was greeted in the front of the ESWA by Miss Alma, the sassy, always sparkly dressed elderly African American woman who often helped out around the office. Her friendly hello and earnest interest in how my studies were going instantly melted the stress away. I then spent about two hours in the benefit office working to get food distributed into boxes to send out to the families on the distribution list. 

All in all the trip took about two and a half hours of my study time. When we got the boxes sorted I took off, back to the library to cram for my two tests. Not only did this study break significantly decrease my stress level, but it also helped me to realize that finals are just finals, some things are more important. Sometimes, we need to put other people before ourselves for the greater good (I still ended up with the best GPA I have had all of college this semester). 

The reason I started with this story is to demonstrate that with time management, the stress of college and the effort we put into our studies is manageable. Even if you think you are the most busy student out there, I guarantee you have time to help other people for a few hours a semester. I think that as college students we get so caught up in feeling busy and in our campus culture that we forget about what is going on right outside our bubble. 

It costs approximately $60,000 a year to attend the University of Rochester at full price, and there are people who live just a few blocks away from the campus that raise families on less than half of that amount for a whole years worth of wages. The campus is a bubble, and it is easy to forget that there are people just outside our door that could use our help. 

I'm an athlete, I'm on the executive board of my sorority, I have a job, and I take a full course load. Even with all this on my plate, I volunteer at least once if not twice a week at the ESWA, a local organization that helps low income workers in the urban Rochester community. I don't say this to boast, I merely mean to demonstrate that even if you think you're busy, and I'm sure you are, if something is important enough to you, you will find the time. 

I think volunteering is that important. I believe that as transient visitors in a community we have the responsibility to give something back. I think that as privileged college students we have the responsibility to contribute to the welfare of those less fortunate than ourselves. I think it is important that everyone gets to experience the community they live in and to really understand the socioeconomic spectrum that is present throughout the country. Not only does volunteering help the community, but it is really humbling to work with some of the best people I have met in my life. There are people that need and deserve our help, and it has really been an honor to get to work with some them for the past 9 months. Making the time for people who need it makes me feel better about myself, and makes me feel like I'm making a difference. Everyone can make time to get involved even if it is just a few times a semester, we just collectively as a group of collegians need to make it a priority to start making a difference in our communities.