A column by Bles Carmona
For the week of April 29-May 5, 2015
Swalwell’s Future Forum listens to students at Chabot College
Congressman Eric Swalwell (CA-East Bay), together with Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-Phoenix) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (WA-Tacoma), paid a visit to the Chabot College Events Center last April 20 for a town hall during the student hour of 12:30-1:30 pm. Were it not for my being able to read Josh Richman’s “Political Blotter” column in that day’s newspaper, I wouldn’t have known to go there and check it out. As it was, I arrived to see a full house of students, community members, Swalwell’s staff, and other sundry interested parties. The big draw, of course, was the topic, which was the rising cost of student loan debt. Surely almost every other college student in our country can identify with owing money for their education. If so, then how affordable does that make college for us –and for the generations after us?
Here is where Future Forum, https://medium.com/future-forum/ or #futureforum
comes in. The Chabot College flyer thus says: “The Future Forum believes it is not enough to talk about Millennials (people born 1985-2015): Members of Congress must listen to and engage Millennials to solve challenges facing their generation. … In April, Members of the Future Forum will embark on a listening tour to three cities: New York City, Boston, and San Francisco. The Members will meet with Millennials on community college and university campuses, at co-working spaces, and at company headquarters. They are also using the online platform Genius to “crowd-source” ideas for millennial-focused legislation to introduce in Congress.”
One of the important facts I learned in this town hall was what Rep. Kilmer mentioned about the TEACH Grant Program, or the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant Program. Under this plan, grants of up to $4,000 are given to students who are completing or plan to complete coursework related to a career in teaching. The students must agree to serve in high-need fields like bilingual education and English language acquisition, foreign language, mathematics, reading specialist, science, and special education as well as any other field that has been identified as high-need by the federal government, a state government, or a local education agency, and that is included in the annual Teacher Shortage Area Nationwide Listing (Nationwide List). The important piece with this TEACH Grant Program is that for every year you teach in a high-needs field in a low-income area, your grant remains gloriously a grant, meaning you don’t have to pay it back. However, if you break contract, your entire grant becomes a loan that you must repay. For more information, you can check out https://studentaid.ed.gov/types/grants-scholarships/teach.
Rep. Swalwell was telling the students that he himself had been saddled by student loans, which did not include the other types of loans that his parents, a retired police officer and a secretary, had to take on. Rep. Gallego, who once served in the US Marines, is of the opinion that if home and car loans can be refinanced, then it makes sense that student loans should be refinanced, too. There was a cool app toward the end of the meeting in which the students in attendance with their ever-present cell phones were asked something to the effect of: “If you didn’t have student loans to pay, where will you spend your money?” As the millennials started keying in their mobile answers, there was an immediate resulting word cloud on the projected visual for everyone to see. Apparently, a lot of the students were thinking of vacations. And who can blame them? Some of the respondents planned to save the money, though.
During the Q & A, one student raised the issue of veterans paying out-of-state tuition in some colleges, but Rep. Gallego said that students with veteran status should get in-state tuition rates. When the congressmen were asked about diversification, they referred to their talks with tech company CEOs, and they all agreed that diversity begins in campuses. The average community college has around 25% African-American students, but Chabot College is above average in that regard, with 40% of the student population being African-American, so Chabot can be considered as serving an underserved population and is thus qualified for more budgetary assistance from the federal, state, and county levels. At least that’s how I’ve always understood it. Another member of the audience asked what he could do to serve his community. Rep. Swalwell asked him, “First of all, are you a member of the student government here at Chabot?” The young man replied no. Rep. Swalwell then said, “Well, you could start there.” Then our three congressmen dispensed sage advice about getting involved in the community by being a volunteer, or by being a member of a committee in the city government, or by getting a mentor, or by getting an internship in the area of public service he wants to focus on. Any combination of these is deemed desirable for persons setting their sights on a career in government.
There may have been a smattering of older, Generation X (born 1964-1984) persons like me in the audience, but obviously, with its reliance on technology and pithy sound bites from the speakers, we know that the true target of this town hall are the Millennials (born 1985-2015) with their mobile gadgetry and short attention spans. I just notice that during town halls like this, there will always be one or two who would approach the microphone with a defensive tone of voice like he or she is getting ready for a debate with the speakers. I know that we could be impatient about much needed reforms in our system of laws, but we need not project our anger with “big government” at these congressmen who are genuinely reaching out to their constituents. We cannot afford to be adversarial with our representatives because we either may have voted them into position or worse, we may have not voted at all out of a misplaced apathy and cynicism about politics and government.
Furthermore, speaking as a Filipina-American, I think that we should stop being a silent minority and advocate to get our own representatives in Congress. Barring that, we must advocate for the swift passage of laws that would help students with mounting educational debts navigate the realities of being in debt. They should also be made to see the responsibility of paying back their loans. Since some of us accepted financial help that we don’t have to repay, we should be helped to realize the means to pay back in kind and services.
I congratulate lawmakers like Reps. Swalwell, Gallego, and Kilmer for initiating these three-city town halls and listen to and engage their constituents. We have high hopes for this Future Forum!