Contributing Writer Billie Golan participated in this three-day hike, all information was compiled by her recollections of the event and first-person reporting.
Rising with the sun on Sunday morning, March 20, seven students marched from the Atrium at SUNY New Paltz headed toward Albany; embarking on a 60 mile, three-day adventure.
Five New Paltz students participated in the hike: fourth-year political science major Brandon Missig, fourth-year graphic design major Nicole Striffolino, third-year digital production major Julia Zitzmann, third-year environmental studies major Billie Golan and third-year journalism major Sarah Eames. Additionally, SUNY Purchase students third-year double major in enviromental studies and philiosophy Melanie Case and second-year accounting major Christopher Adrion also joined the hike.
The group began their three-day “No Tuition Hike” as part of New York Student’s Rising’s (NYSR) 20 Days of Noise to accelerate demands to freeze the annual tuition hikes promoted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The New York Assembly and Senate both unanimously passed the Maintenance of Effort Clause to have the state reinvest in public schools, to which Cuomo vetoed. Outraged by Cuomo’s decision to reject a potential reinvestment in SUNY prompted NYSR to begin a grassroots rally.
State investment in public higher education has decreased by almost half since 2007, with students picking up the tab. While the average SUNY student graduates with a debt loan of $30,000, SUNY’s top administrators earn sky-high taxpayer-funded salaries, driving up the cost to attend our state’s public colleges.
“There is no such thing as a rational tuition increase,” Brian O’Bach, sociology professor at SUNY New Paltz said. “The Rational Tuition plan raises student public tuition $300 every year, effectively reducing state investment and support while increasing the burden of public education on students.”
With two giant banners hooked onto their backpacks, one reading “Freeze Tuition” and the other “Two Down, Cuomo To Go”, the student activists took to the road with a goal of reaching Kingston on day one of the hike.
While still in New Paltz, Striffolino received a call from Time Warner Cable. Within the hour, a reporter pulled over with her video camera and questions in tow. That night the segment was featured on cable TV.
“It’s symbolic cause we’re freezing tuition, so we’ll be literally freezing,” Case said to one reporter.
The rest of that day’s walk brought them to Kingston and along the way, cars honked in support as they sped by. One woman pulled over asking what the march was about, and drove away with reminders to tweet and hashtag about the hike, which began infiltrating social media.
“It’s becoming more and more necessary to go to college and get a degree, but at the same time less affordable,” Eames said.
At an average pace of two miles an hour, Kingston was in sight by 4 p.m., about eight hours after leaving the SUNY New Paltz campus.
With tired bodies and worn out feet, the crew was hosted by a New Paltz alumni who reached out via New Paltz Public Interest Researcg Group (NYPIRG) after hearing about the student’s efforts. Safe and sore, the crew discussed the most efficient pace to walk at for the following two days ahead of them. After taking fifteen minute breaks every four miles got the group from Saugerties to Ravena in eight hours by Monday.
By day two, lifelong activist and member of the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition Joe Barbarito drove up to support the students as well as contact local news stations and teachers’ unions.
With signs in the back of his car reading “No Tuition Hike” and “Albany or Bust,” Barbarito was a big part of alerting the media of the crew’s arrival, stopping and calling representatives at each break stop. Some empathetic people pulled over and offered the group a ride up, to which they were declined due to it undermining the protest.
The blisters that formed on Strifflino’s feet were tightly wrapped up, but definitely not going away until the hike was over.
“I want to be bleeding by Albany!” Striffilino said.
Although said lightheartedly, this would be an unambiguous representation of all the effort it took to carry out this protest.
Several passer-byers praised Cuomo’s father and former New York Governer, Mario Cuomo on his respectable leadership skills, to their demise of the contrast in to his son’s political stances.
Finally reaching the night’s destination by 4 p.m., the crew spent their night unwinding in a Best Western right alongside 9W.
On day three, the group started their last leg of the journey, making their way into the downtown of Albany, 20 miles away from their current location.
Using muscle soreness and pain as a reminder that student debt is literally crushing, the group kept in mind why they had been walking for the past three days and headed to the city, with the Capitol Building in sight.
Six hours later, armed with a bullhorn and a few friends made along the way, the group chanted “fight fight fight fight, education is a right,” as they made the final steps toward the New York Capitol Building and did not stop as they headed inside through the building where the walls echoed their battle cries.
Several news stations had been awaiting their arrival as the group marched and stopped in front of the large cascading steps of the building.
Among the press was Assemblyman James Skoufis who has made several appearances at SUNY New Paltz campus rallies in support of the students and their demand for a freeze in tuition.
“Tuition-Free NY would give bright and talented students the incentive to stay and put down roots here in New York, helping to grow and strengthen the economy,” Skoufis said at one of NYSR’s campus rallies.
Cuomo had left for Buffalo earlier that morning, but that didn’t stop Striffilino and Missig from delivering a cap and gown covered in student debt checks and a protest poster signed by students at SUNY Purchase to Cuomo’s secretary.
“I think that Governor Cuomo has an opportunity to fight for affordable higher education to contribute to the student movement of affordable higher education and he’s choosing not to,” said Missig in an interview with The Saratogian.
The group stayed in front of the steps to finish interviews and pictures before returning to New Paltz by car.
In the face of criticism and student outrage, SUNY officials offered to impose a tuition freeze if the legislature commits $73 million in direct state investment to SUNY schools in the final 2016-17 Budget.