David Lopez and Ralph Washington, Jr. were elected recently to positions as student leaders with enormous constituencies and responsibilities. As president of the California State Student Association, Lopez represents the 474,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the 23 CSU campuses and is the leading spokesperson for student causes at the system’s headquarters and the state Legislature. Washington has similar duties as president of the University of California Student Association, the leading voice for the 252,000 students at the 10 UC campuses.
Each campus has its own student body president. But as representatives of each system, Lopez and Washington are allotted time to speak at meetings of their system’s respective governing body, the Cal State trustees and UC regents — an occasion their predecessors sometimes used to sharply criticize university policies.
The two men have deep personal experience on their campuses. Lopez, 23, from Santa Barbara, is a graduate student in public administration at Cal State East Bay in Hayward, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. Washington, 32, of Sacramento, is a doctoral student in entomology — the study of insects, mosquitoes in his case — at UC Davis, where he earned his bachelor’s degree.
With the academic year getting underway, EdSource talked to Lopez and Washington about major issues they say are affecting California’s public university students. The discussions were conducted separately but their responses are combined and condensed here.
What do you expect will be the biggest issues facing students this year?
Lopez: One of things we are focusing on this year is food insecurity. How do we help our students who can’t afford getting food but don’t seek help? Some of the stuff we are looking at is developing more food pantries and working to develop app systems to let students know that there is food left over after an event . . . We are experiencing students not having enough money. They can’t live off ramen every night.
Washington: Mental health services. You have a situation where students are supposed to succeed in an incredibly stressful environment but they can’t because they don’t have sufficient support to help them. Students need to feel safe and comfortable in their pursuit of education. Sexual assault and sexual violence is another important issue. That is coupled with insufficient support for survivors, insufficient adjudication and insufficient prevention that allows predators to remain on campus.
Do you think campus and system administrators are listening to students’ concerns and serving students’ interests and needs?
Washington: I think that if a perfect job were done listening to students’ concerns, we would not need to protest so often, complain so much. Many large committees that create policies are composed primarily of many staff and faculty but often only a single student. That devalues student opinion. That marginalization is an injustice when you consider how many students there are on the campuses compared to everyone else.
Lopez: I believe campuses and the CSU chancellor are trying to do the best they can . . . I have noticed a difference in the way they are engaged with students, in the way they see students. I think they are moving toward a more mutual agreement with students and more shared vision. But I think there are complaints about communication, the way the news gets to student leaders and the entire student population. And we want to broaden decision-making on individual campuses and the system as a whole. We want more shared governance, with students more involved in decisions.
“I think that if a perfect job were done listening to students’ concerns, we would not need to protest so often, complain so much,” said Ralph Washington, Jr.
Most undergraduate tuition has been frozen at CSU and UC since 2011, and administrators say a lot of financial aid is available. So why is student debt such a big concern?
Washington: There is aid, but if the aid were sufficient to solve the problem, then we would not have the situation we do right now . . . Many professional school students are incurring so much debt that it is cost-prohibitive for them to enter public sector work post-graduation. They won’t earn enough to pay their student loans. If one of our primary aims at the University of California is to improve society and improve the wellbeing of the citizens around the state, we are remiss in that commitment by discouraging our graduates from working on projects that improve the lives of our citizens.
Lopez: Yes, there is a freeze on tuition, but it is still a financial burden on the students. And the cost of living is getting more and more expensive and sometimes you have to go far out of the way to find housing you can afford . . . Student debt will always change a person and his long-term goals, making you feel the need to find the right job to pay back the loans on time. My own debt is racking up. It’s about $50,000 now, but I hope to go to law school and it will probably be about $200,000 in the end. I did it for the right reasons, to prepare myself for the right career.
There is so much emphasis now on trying to get more students to graduate in four years. What can be done to improve graduation rates?
Lopez: A general theme I hear among students who are here longer (than four years) is dealing with inadequate resources provided for student advising. There is not enough advising. And another struggle, too, for a lot of students is summer school: How can I pay for summer school if it is coming out of my pocket? And what if I need just one more class to graduate, and they don’t even have that class in summer school?
Washington: I think the initial four-year expectation might be a little unrealistic now. I think the opportunities that students like to participate in, in addition to their education, make five years not an unreasonable time to get a bachelor’s degree . . . And in truth, I think it’s worth appreciating that it’s hard to concentrate on studying for a test in organic chemistry when you don’t have the money to buy the food to give you the organic molecules to power your brain.
If you could wish for the most important change to help students at your university, what would it be — regardless of cost?
Washington: I really would like to see diversity of faculty and staff reflect the diversity of students. And I would like to see the diversity of students reflect the diversity of the state. It’s incredibly meaningful to be in a classroom and studying any subject when you can relate to the professor because they share your identity. If you are the only student of your ethnic or cultural or racial background in your classroom and not even the professor reflects that background, it is a very isolating experience.
Lopez: The one thing I would love to see is more affordable housing for our CSU students . . . It’s becoming harder to pay for (off-campus) housing, especially in San Francisco, San Jose and East Bay. Sometimes they are living in cars because they can’t afford the rent. Even living on campus is kind of high, and there is not enough space either. Campuses should either expand their dormitories or find affordable off-campus apartment suites for their students.