On February 25, three University of Arizona graduate students—Kyle Blessinger, Zach Brooks, and Sarah Ann Meggison—had a meeting with Kelli Ward, a Republican state senator in Arizona. They were there to lobby against massive new cuts to state spending on higher education; the number being thrown around was $75 million. Under the state constitution, attending the university is supposed to be as “nearly free as possible,” but due to state budget cuts, tuition had increased more than 70 percent between 2008 and 2013 for in-state students—the severest hike in the country. Now it was poised to go up even more, while funds for graduate instructors were likely to be squeezed even further.
Blessinger, a 28-year-old Air Force veteran, was particularly concerned. He’d used up his GI benefits for his undergraduate education, and with a year left before he finishes his MA in higher education, he already carries $65,000 in student debt. In the past, he had worked as a teaching assistant in two classes, which earned him a tuition waiver—but this semester, because of budget cuts, the school could only afford to give him one. To make ends meet, he was working as a bartender and freelancing as a private security guard, occasionally at parties thrown by affluent undergraduates.
“I don’t think veterans should necessarily have to work two or three jobs just to be able to afford to live while we’re going to school,” Blessinger says. “I don’t have time to study. Some days, it’s quite tough.”
A tall man with a nearly clean-shaven head, Blessinger has a doleful, hound-dog expression. His right arm is sleeved with tattoos; among them is an image of his pug, T-Bone, dressed as the Red Baron and flying a fighter plane; he got T-Bone as a therapy animal to help him through a depression while he was enlisted. “Valor” is inked on Blessinger’s right wrist, “Truth” on his left.
Blessinger says he dreams of a career in education reform, “working with state governments, the federal government, to rewrite policy to make state higher education more accessible and more equitable.” He planned to apply to a joint law and PhD program after finishing his MA—but given his onerous debt, he’s been reconsidering his options.
The three students thought that Ward, a conservative who is rumored to be considering a primary challenge to Senator John McCain, might be sympathetic to the plight of a struggling veteran. That’s not how the meeting turned out, however. “She actually was pretty rude to him,” recalls Brooks, a fifth-year PhD student in second-language acquisition. According to all three students, Ward called Blessinger “entitled” and told him, “If you don’t like being here, other states have different programs for vets, and maybe you should go there.”
“She called me an entitled little prick,” says Blessinger, admittedly paraphrasing. “I work three jobs, plus I go to graduate school. I’m not sure how much more biting the bullet she wants me to do.” (Ward, after initially agreeing to talk, didn’t respond to follow-up e-mails.)