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HECTOR TOBAR

California budget crisis' teachable moment

The budget crunch at Cal State is getting so bad, it's forcing some young people to think about a future without a college education. But some students won't sit idly by.

February 09, 2010|Hector Tobar

Maybe, one day, something good will come out of California's budget crisis.

Yeah, that's probably an overly optimistic thought. But it's what I felt when I attended an event on the campus of Cal State Northridge last week.

Only a fraction of the student body was there, not more than 200 people sitting and standing in circles on the grass. They had arrived for a series of "teach-ins" on the Cal State system's budget crisis, organized by Chicano studies professors and students on a furlough day for the professors.

Several sessions were going on at once, each a history lesson, with politics and economics thrown in.

Giovanni Tello, a 30-year-old mechanical engineering student, listened to a professor explain how the housing crisis, the financial meltdown and the state budget catastrophe were all interconnected.

Once the lecture was over, Tello spoke -- about his anger.

For years the university had been helping him get student loans, driving him into debt, he said. But now it was cutting his classes and making it impossible to finish.

"It's like they got all the money out of me they could," he said, "so now they're trying to get rid of me."

Tello told me later that he'd never been to a budget protest before. For his sake and for California's, I hope it won't be his last.

The Cal State University system, that great bridge between working-class California and its middle class, is under threat. Tuition has been going up at a head-spinning rate -- 32% this year. Now faculty is being cut, financial aid is disappearing and many key classes are impossible to get.

The crisis at Cal State is getting so bad, it's forcing some young people to think about a future without a college education.

What if getting good grades isn't enough anymore? What will California look like if you have to be wealthy to get your bachelor's degree? And how did such a disaster come to pass?

"Something I really want to find out is where the money is being spent," 19-year-old Alejandro Hernandez told me.

Except for some furloughed faculty, it was an ordinary day at Cal State Northridge.

Many students probably were too busy squeezing in classes between part-time and full-time jobs to even think about protesting.

But a few, like Hernandez, seem willing to turn the apathetic, commuter campus stereotype upside down -- by beginning to study the legislative process.

Hernandez told me he supports an Assembly bill that would tax oil producers to fund public education. The bill recently got stalled in committee, he said.

"Why do you think that happened?" I asked.

He thought about my question for a second and answered: "I don't know."

Like other Cal State students, Hernandez is just getting his activist bearings. When he arrived on campus in 2008, his mission was to study graphic design, a dream born of a childhood among Boyle Heights street murals. After attending Eastside schools with limited art classes, he found Northridge a slice of heaven.

Then, at the beginning of this year, officials eliminated all of his financial aid.

His mom works as a nanny and he's juggling the odd job to get by. Still, he's starting to think about ways to serve a movement. "Art is a means to get a community's attention," he told me.

I approached another student protester who told me his name was "Ricardo Flores Magon." That's actually the name of a Mexican revolutionary leader and philosopher from the early part of the last century. "It's my CSUN protest name," said Adan Garcia, 24.

Flores Magon once lived in exile in Los Angeles. Garcia, a graduate student, is from East Los Angeles. At Garfield High, "I took machine shop twice and cooking twice, and no one ever told me to go to college," he told me. Cal State has opened up new worlds to him. "I want to make sure it's still here when my little sister goes to college."

Talking to Garcia and others, and watching them earnestly trying to follow the teach-ins' history lessons, I hoped I was seeing the beginning of something.

Maybe, I told myself, this is the quiet prologue to a larger movement.

Call it a pipe dream. But stranger things have happened on California campuses.

It was more than 45 years ago that the Free Speech movement began at UC Berkeley, a gathering of student activists that foreshadowed the great upheavals that swept through America in the late 1960s.

That bit of California history came up in the teach-ins, along with Ronald Reagan's tenure as governor, and the broken promises of the state's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education. A few students drifted away, but most stayed to the end.

Some people will tell you that today's Cal State students are either too self-centered or too poor to change the political equations in Sacramento.

After my visit to Cal State Northridge, I'm not sure I believe that -- because in the eyes of a handful of students, I saw something familiar.

It's that steely determination you get when you've taken one step out of poverty and refuse to go back to that dark and desperate place.

Adan Garcia told me that his father, a roofer, is out of work. He said he's considered giving up on his master's degree and getting a job to help his parents. "I'm being pushed against a wall," he told me. "But I'm still here."

I hope he gets that degree. And that he goes to a hundred protests.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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