The Betrayal of the American Dream
We're pleased to announce the winners of The Nation's fifth annual Student Writing Contest.
This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how their education has been compromised by budget cuts and tuition hikes. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Amanda Lewan of Michigan State University and Melissa Parnagian of Old Bridge High School in New Jersey. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Many thanks to The Nation Institute for its generosity in making this contest possible. -- The Editors
This is not the essay that I had originally wanted to write. I had planned a piece about the ways that students overcome adversity in pursuit of their education. Unfortunately, I can no longer write anything quite so optimistic. Yesterday, I was informed that my academic funding has been cut, and it is now uncertain whether I will still be able to attend Rutgers University in the autumn. The regrettable thing is that my own academic uncertainty has become the norm in the Garden State, as a newly elected Republican governor goes about undoing decades worth of educational growth, possibly dooming an entire generation of bright, hardworking New Jersey students in the process. That may seem hyperbolic, but it's not. There is no such thing as "just politics" when it comes to education, and there is no such thing as compromise. What Governor Christie has done by cutting aid programs and education funding amounts to a declaration of war against the American Dream and to a betrayal of our state's—and, by extension, our nation's—future.
I understand that these cuts are merely a symptom of a much larger and older problem. Whenever it becomes time to, to borrow Governor Christie's language, "tighten our belts" and "share" a sacrifice, it seems that some belts end up tighter than others, and that education takes up an unfair share of said sacrifice. For far too long we have taken education for granted in this country, and we have the test scores to prove it. There is a difference between doing what it takes to solve a budget crisis and making it look like one is doing what it takes, and it is much easier to make the case to the voting public that maybe the eggheads at the universities do not really need the money then it is to push through progressive tax policy, end corporate welfare or rein in spending at the governor's office. New Jersey is far from alone; the most recent wave of assaults on our educational system is simply the latest in a long line, and the rally cry of "they say 'cut back' we say 'fight back,' " has been sounded from Berkley to New Brunswick.
If there is any good that has come from these budgetary misadventures, it has been the politicization of my peers. I am an Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) recipient. Governor Christie's partisan attack on this program has ensured that to be an EOF student is to be political. Students whom I had always been known to be completely apathetic when it came to politics suddenly were passing out flyers, signing petitions, speaking at rallies and writing state officials. Meanwhile, many New Jersey high school students were forced to jump into the deep waters of civil disobedience, hosting school walkouts and other forms of nonviolent protest. The lobbying was somewhat effective, but only if you consider the cuts' not being quite as drastic as they could have been to be a success. And what do we get in return for this politicization? School districts closed, teachers treated like expendable wastes of taxpayer money, protesters arrested, the dreams of students derailed, the hopes and dreams of entire families dried up like Hughes's raisin in the sun. I cannot afford college, while Governor Christie can afford to spend close to $9 million of the taxpayers' money on his staff. It is a paradox—this ugliness and greed is the reason many Americans turn their backs on politics, but their turning their backs allows for the ugliness and greed to perpetuate.
I am writing this essay in a lounge full of new EOF recipients, about to start their first semester at Rutgers University. I am employed as their RA, and it is my job to make sure that their integration into the university community is a smooth one. Meeting these young men and women fills me with hope, but it also frightens me. Will they be able to last here at Rutgers long enough to finish their degrees?. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, I am watching them study in a lounge overlooking the Raritan River, contemplating what exactly my own future holds. To me, it is not simply a matter of my education being compromised. The budget cuts may very well have destroyed my academic career. I can only hope now, hope that somehow I can scrounge up the money I am no longer receiving, as well as hope that the students that sit here with me fare better than many of us have.