Student Voice: Brandon Missig

By Brandon Missig

Fourth-year Political Science Major

New York Students Rising (NYSR) has been an endless source of inspiration for me and many other students who have dedicated time to its organization. I still vividly remember the day I ran into Rebecca Berlin and Sadie Godlis, from whom we inherited NYSR. I ran into them handing out flyers in front of the Student Union building on a sunny spring day two years ago. They were promoting NYSR’s Free University, an event filled with discussion ­based classes lead by both students and professors. I sat in a circle with other students, professors and members of the surrounding community and we engaged in conversation about the school ­to ­prison pipeline, the struggle for LGBTQIA+ rights, the fight to end rape culture and most prominently, the idea that higher education is a human right.

The No ­Tuition Hike represented the peak of the movement started by NYSR. When the SUNY 2020 legislation was introduced in 2011 it was NYSR, then known as Students of the Final Cut, that demanded an immediate end to further tuition hikes. For years NYSR demanded a freeze in the cost of tuition through events, rallying, petitioning and walking out only to motivate weak counter arguments and staunch dismissals by the administration and the governor. Tuition continued to increase $300 every year.

NYSR’s 20 Days of Noise this March indicated a change in perspective. We had finally earned the attention and respect of our legislators in Albany, and we would not let that pressure on the governor subside. We would march to the epicenter, past our representatives and straight to Gov. Cuomo’s office to deliver the dirty and tattered graduation gown covered in student debt checks. The image was intense. Witnessing this otherwise ceremonial gown covered in symbols of oppression left me feeling the satisfaction of committing an act of sacrilege. This semester we had evolved into a more radical activist organization. The result was empowering. We planned this march without an ounce of doubt. Twenty miles a day was nothing in the face of the crippling weight of student debt.

I will never understand what it is like to face a lifetime of student debt. I go to school on my parents’ money, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for how privileged I am in that regard. Before my parents offered to pay, I spent my high school years preparing myself for the reality of taking on tens of thousands of dollars of debt. As a college­bound high school graduate, I could hardly comprehend the implications of taking out student loans. Debt is an oppressive aspect of reality that millions of students worldwide are expected to accept. Higher education is currently a huge price we pay to ensure a successful future. I only felt that debt was inherently related to higher education before Free University. After that, I was compelled to contribute to the reclaiming of the power the state desperately didn’t want us to know we had.

The first day of marching was the hardest. We had to trek over a mountain to reach the flat route that is 9W. After covering 14 miles and looking up the hill leading to the town of Kingston we asked ourselves, “Why are we doing this?” We reached Saugerties hardly able to walk and trying to forget the fact that this was only the first of three days. “This is not rational” was the collective consensus as we collapsed onto the floor of the apartment where we spent the first night.

Student debt, on the other hand, is perfectly rational. Or so they would have us believe. At least from the perspective of the policy makers who created the system. From the perspective of the policymakers, it makes perfect sense for students to owe tens of thousands of dollars to banks. Those banks support the political campaigns of the politicians who created the system in the first place. In this context, the term rational tuition doesn’t seem ironic ­ – it’s applicable.

For Gov. Cuomo, this provides an ideal situation. He can shift the financial burden of paying for higher education onto students and families while giving tax breaks to his friends on Wall Street. Furthermore, he can operationalize state funds in such a way that enables him and his appointed Board of Trustees to micromanage how taxpayer money is spent. This money provides fertile ground for lucrative relationships between corporations and the schools. This indicates that instead of hiring new professors and providing necessary salary increases to current ones, state funds are being used as a political resource for these officials.

That’s where we are­ a ragtag team of activists marching up a mountain of student debt against a landslide of bureaucracy. As Nicole “Striff” Striffolino, one of the lead organizers, pointed out, this march serves as an allegory for the student debt struggle. Without a stable high­paying career, debt denies an individual a lifetime of financial agency. The collection of raw blisters on our feet represent edrent, car payments, insurance, food. The ache in our bodies became a reminder that at the end of the day, after all of our hard work in college, we resurface in a world where debt functionally oppresses ambition. What happened to the promises that we could be whatever we intended to be? The story completes itself upon our arrival in Albany. The ensemble of cameras waiting to receive us at the capitol proves that our demands could no longer be ignored and that this effort is evolving.

The 20 Days of Noise transcended our initial goals. NYSR participates in a chain of organizations broadcasting the rhetoric of a worldwide movement. Despite regional differences, this global movement is intrinsically linked by the pursuit of an ideal that one day education will be free and accessible to everyone. The students of the world are rising together and the students united will never be defeated.

The views expressed in op-eds are solely those of the student who wrote and submitted it. They do not necessarily reflect those of The New Paltz Oracle, its staff members, the campus and university or the Town or Village of New Paltz.