By Maia Efrem and Sarah Wali
For Sarah Delany, this semester at Hostos Community College was looking good. She had been elected as the student senate representative, accepted into the highly competitive nursing program, and would continue to be part of the university sponsored Student Leadership Academy.
But professors delivered a shock to the nursing students on the first day of classes. Students would have to pay for their own course materials this year, which included interactive textbooks, access to an online instructor, online practice exams, a DVD lecture review system and eight review books.
The package distributed by Assessment Technologies Institute, LLC would cost them $430. A grant covered the cost for last year’s students. There was no grant for this year.
Delany didn’t have the money.
Most students at Hostos live in households that make less than $30,000 per year. Adding material costs to a $350 tuition hike for the semester, many wondered how they could afford to stay in school.
City University of New York cut $44 million in state and city aid for the 2008-2009 school year, and proposed to cut $10 million to community colleges for the upcoming year. To offset the budget cuts, tuition has increased this year (and is expected to increase another 15 percent next year). Programs are being cut and students are left without the financial means to support a higher education. With all these budget pressures, even Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to infuse $50 million in the CUNY system would not be enough to help students like Delany.
Programs for CUNY’s brightest, like the Student Leadership Academy and Registered Nursing program, are feeling the cuts. But, Councilman Charles Barron, who serves as chair of the Higher Education Committee, claims the money is there.
“How can they say there’s no money when CUNY has a $2.6 billion budget?” he said. “They are just not spending it on community colleges.”
Barron urges students to demand the money they deserve.
“No generation has ever progressed without a student movement,” he said. “It has never happened. The money is there. You have to show that you are a priority.”
Armed with skills she learned at the Student Leadership Academy in the past year, Delany did just that. She became an advocate for nursing students at Hostos. She wrote a petition to the Student Senate asking for funds, and gained support for other initiatives from students and faculty.
Although the administration has yet to come to an agreement on the proposed increase, Delany said her experience with the Student Leadership Academy gave her the confidence to advocate for the nursing students. Through workshops and conferences, Delany learned how to make effective arguments.
The director of the Student Leadership Academy, Jason Libfeld, said hurdles like the one Delany is facing as a nursing student are commonplace at Hostos.
A graduate of Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts program, Libfield left his career as a teacher two years ago to establish this program that would help develop the highest achieving students into leaders through workshops, conferences and community service.
To be an ambassador with the Student Leadership Association students had to demonstrate academic excellence with a grade point average above 3.4, commit to at least 40 hours a semester of community service and be willing to participate in conferences upstate and New Jersey.
Most important, he hoped to create a sense of community otherwise missing at Hostos.
“The first thing I asked for is mailboxes,” he said. “I wanted to make sure they came back to the office. If they had email I would never see them.”
Despite being tucked away in what they call the broom closet, Libfeld and his students have created one of the most successful student associations in the CUNY system.
Major achievements include providing a student representative at the World Trade Center Memorial with President Barack Obama, and with Mayor Bloomberg during a memorable trip upstate at the Mock Student Senate meeting.
The Model Senate provides a forum for students to discuss real issues currently being raised in the State Senate. The annual conference is held in Albany, and requires hours of preparation. Students who do well can carve a path towards a political career.
Sandra May Flowers, whose motto is “opportunities quickly diminish,” secured an intership with Councilman Barron after her first year participating in the mock senate.
The professional workshops cost an average of $2,000 per month and may be the first program Libfeld is forced to eliminate.
Samantha Jackson’s experience shows how important the workshops can be. She worked hard to earn the grades she needed in high school to be accepted into a four-year college. But her mother could not afford the tuition, which forced her to attend Hostos.
“At first, it hurt to go to Hostos with the grades I worked so hard for,” said Jackson, a Jamaican immigrant..
But she reached out to the Academy and learned about the Jose E. Serrano Scholarship for Diplomatic Studies, a program that moves students from Hostos into Columbia University for a Bachelor of Arts followed by a two-year graduate program at Columbia Unviersity’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Jackson was accepted to the program, which requires students to maintain a 3.0 GPA.
Jackson, now finishing her degree at Columbia, attributes her success to the Hostos programs that are facing budget cuts in the coming year. She says the Student leadership Academy’s emphasis on community service was what she was looking for, training in the field and insight from professionals.
During her time in Hostos, Jackson was one of many students who supported a small increase to the cost of tuition in an effort to attract a desirable faculty with promise of higher pay.
“The school could not keep educators because they could not pay them enough in today’s bad economy,” said Jackson. “A small tuition hike could have resolved a lot of issues. We could have raised the money that the city and state were not providing the school.”
However, according to Barron, students are fooling themselves if they think a tuition hike would mean more resources for students.
“They bought the Kool-Aid from the administration,” he said. “They believe that if they increase tuition the school will then invest that money back into the programs.”
Barron points to the $60 billion city budget and $131 billion state budget, claiming that it is up to the city to allocate appropriate funds for community colleges.
“We can build Yankee Stadium?” he said. “We can build the Mets a new stadium, but we can’t provide money for CUNY students?”
Despite the proposed budget cuts, and the continued financial stresses the students of the Student Leadership Academy are facing, they remain optimistic about the program’s future.
Libfeld says one of his proudest moments with the Student Leadership Academy was planting 900 trees in one day at St. Mary’s park in the Bronx. He also remembers the day he took the students to Isabella Nursing Home. One of the students was so excited to be there, she talked until one of the senior citizens fell asleep.
He and the students are resigned to continue on even if they lose workshop and field trip money.
At least outreach would be saved. It costs nothing.
Something Libfeld and his students don’t mind.
“If we have to go back to bare bones, then we’ll do that,” he said. “No matter what we will always have community service.”