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How students jumpstarted a bold new campaign for debt abolition  

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university of san francisco students march to protest student debt

The historic movement victory to forgive student debt won last summer is under relentless attack. At the beginning of June, the Senate passed a bill blocking President Biden’s debt cancellation plan, which he subsequently vetoed. However, the plan remains on hold as the Supreme Court considers dubious challenges to it. Another blow came with the signing of the bipartisan debt ceiling deal that will restart student loan payments at the end of August. 

In response to these ongoing threats, students are once again taking action — rallying outside the Supreme Court in February and organizing a sit-in at House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office on Capitol Hill in May. 

Students have also continued to organize on their individual campuses across the country. According to Alyssa Traina, who just finished her sophomore year at the University of San Francisco, the situation reached “a boiling point” at her school following a decision to raise tuition and housing costs to $80,000 a year. Ongoing problems with student housing, food, financial aid and unwanted building acquisitions and construction also contributed to the decision to mobilize. 

In addition to her involvement with the campaign’s media team, Traina has created regular videos for Waging Nonviolence as our digital content creator over the last year. In this conversation, we discuss the extensive planning that went into the action at the end of the semester, as well as next steps for SFU’s growing student campaign. 

After so many months of prep, how did you feel about the turnout for the protest?

Staring out at a crowd of 300 students during the action in April, organizers were amazed that our small group was able to generate such a crowd after only two semesters of planning. On top of the people who showed up to protest, a poll we created on a student exclusive social media site indicated over 700 students skipped class in support. To put that into perspective, that means a sixth of the undergraduate student body was participating in our call to action. While we never expected so much support, we were not surprised that so many people on our small campus were frustrated enough to show up to protest. 

Can you describe some of the moving stories shared by participants?

When the crowd showed up the energy was electric. We began the march, running into multiple tour groups along the way. Standing outside the McLaren Center where potential students and their families were sitting, we read testimonies from students about their debt.  

“Sometimes I cry because I’m so worried about the future and how much debt I’m going to be in,” one said. “My only regret about USF is the price, like I wish I didn’t attend but also I met a lot of amazing friends here.” Another student said, “I had to drop out and go to community college because school was so expensive. I had to take out $30,000 in loans just for my first year. I tried to work it out with the financial aid office and they basically told me to figure it out. I felt forced to leave, so I did.”

At our second stop, we read more testimonies discussing frustrations with the quality of life on campus before arriving at our final destination in front of the library. There students came up to talk about their experiences, sharing heartbreaking stories of how the university failed them. 

How did you prepare the ground for the action and plug more students into the organizing effort? 

With the help of San Francisco Rising, a local grassroots organization focused on student debt abolition and empowering student organizers, we finalized a survey on student debt, something started the year prior, to gauge how debt affects students. We decided to hold a student debt resource fair in November where students could better understand their loans and share their experiences. 

The main focus of the event was going to be connecting students to debt cancellation resources. During the planning of the fair, President Biden’s student debt cancellation plan was blocked by a Texas judge. The fate of the plan remains up in the air as the Supreme Court has yet to release their ruling on it.  

What did you learn about the extent of the problem from the survey?

We sent volunteers into classrooms to give presentations about student debt facts and have them take our survey, as well as posting the link online. We got 600 survey responses from these efforts, and found that two in five students will accumulate over $20,000 in student debt to graduate. Seventy percent of students do not think their education matches the price they pay despite three in five students saying they were influenced to attend USFCA because of scholarships. Three in five students also work more than 20 hours a week and said that they were very stressed about their student loans. 

These statistics are not anomalies. According to the Education Data Initiative, Americans owe $1.7 trillion in student loan debt and the average amount owed is over $37,000. As our survey showed, students’ mental health is greatly impacted by their debt, and they often have to sacrifice their education to work to cover tuition. 

Can you tell me about how students translated this research into action?

Part of San Francisco Rising’s mission is to empower students across the city to become organizers, focusing on campus issues to broaden the fight for free college for all and debt abolition. With this in mind, we decided to organize a mass action on campus to bring issues to light to confront the administration for their failures.

We chose to focus on the root cause of the student debt crisis, which is the outrageous price students are forced to pay for education in the first place. Rather than appealing to an administration that showed no concern for student issues and no remorse for their exorbitant tuition prices we focused on students themselves. 

What kind of planning went into the protest and how did you spread the word on campus?

Our planning involved meticulously pulling out qualitative data from our survey and submission forms to use as testimonials during the protest. We planned out a route for the march, with stops that focused on different issues affecting students at the McLaren Conference Center, Lone Mountain East dorm and ending at the Gleeson Plaza. 

Posters expressing their frustration put up by students after the protest in front of the University Center. (WNV/Anika Becker)

Organizers and volunteers also spent hours working on making posters. We wanted to start a discussion, so our first rollout of advertising did not include any mentions of the protest. Instead, they announced a Day of Refusal, calling for people to ditch class and work to protest — and asking our central question, “For $80,000 a year how has USF failed you?” 

During the weeks leading up to the protest, we printed out hundreds of posters to put up around campus. As the protest approached we spent hours putting them in increasingly more difficult places to take down, including on TVs that are mounted high up on the walls. As quickly as we put them up, they were removed.

Did you experience other pushback from the university? 

Just days after we posted the initial flyer to our Instagram, a member of the administration reached out asking for a meeting to go over the guidelines for demonstrations. Although they claimed to not want to dissuade our efforts, we declined. That same member also reached out to the president of a student organization on campus asking if they knew the names of the organizers, something we were trying to keep from them to prevent anyone getting in trouble. 

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Not long after ASUSF, the student government, was asking to schedule a meeting. Due to their affiliation with the university and past track record of performative activism, we also declined that meeting. Members of ASUSF continued to ask for meetings and reached out to people to try to figure out the identities of organizers. 

How were organizers feeling after the action, and what comes next? 

Despite the main organizers having little to no experience planning a mass action, the day was a success. We were able to organize hundreds of students to protest our school’s issues that are a constant topic among students, but never discussed on larger scales. 

Our group has every intention of keeping the momentum going and had 50 people express interest in becoming involved. We have hopes of creating a coalition with other student organizations and clubs so we can connect groups on campus that have similar missions and combine our efforts for a more equitable campus experience.

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