Chase Hardin: Students must challenge debt like they protested Vietnam

Despite criticism of last year’s rebranding campaign, one slogan was right: GW students can change the course of history.

Once upon a time, they did.

By 1969, the Vietnam War had claimed nearly 40,000 American lives. As public opinion began to turn against the conflict, the Nixon administration and Congress were unresponsive. That is, of course, until demonstrators – including students facing the threat of the draft’s death warrant – mobilized to end the war.

Shawn McHale, associate professor of history and international affairs, told me that though GW students get “little credit” for their role in the protests, “they were crucial, as [students] provided housing for outside protesters and students participated in the protests themselves.”

As many as 400,000 protesters marched the streets of the District that November.

Public opinion began to shift, and the war became so unpopular that Nixon was forced to pull troops out of Vietnam sooner than he anticipated. GW students’ open defiance of then-University President Lloyd Elliott’s housing policies – which banned students from harboring protesters in their dorms – brought about genuine change in the course of American history.

But students at GW today haven’t been living up to this standard. When was the last time we showed that kind of courage, fortitude or unity?

I’m calling on Student Association leaders to embrace a larger vision than quixotic attempts to fight for more study and recreation space. Julia Susuni, you and your administration should take on national student debt.

Among friends, I’ve been told to get off my high horse. Vietnam was a once-in-a-generation issue, they say. Modern students have nothing as galvanizing to rally behind. There’s no moral atrocity that we all feel compelled to address. And sometimes, I think they’re right: On my more cynical days, I concede that GW students today are more interested in being part of the body politic than challenging its injustices.

But what about student debt? It’s an issue every student will rally to because in one way or another, it affects every one of us. And Susuni told me in an email that she agrees it’s an “extremely important issue.” Student debt is an economic nightmare with potentially devastating consequences. It’s something GW students are familiar with and uniquely equipped to protest. Now is the time.

Forty-five percent of GW students graduate with an average debt of $32,714 dollars, according to the most recent data from 2011 from the Project on Student Debt.

Jobs are sparse upon graduation. Interest rates on government loans consistently threaten to climb. Total student debt has eclipsed credit card debt in America. And the student body is fiddling while Rome burns.

Student leaders must start raising hell. The Vietnam protesters at GW didn’t think small, and neither should we. Campus hubs – like, for example, Kogan Plaza, where a rally for student space occurred last spring – were not the scene of history-making protests. The White House and Capitol Hill were. Student leaders should find a powerful friend with whom to align themselves.

These friends already exist. Senator Elizabeth Warren, an alumna, must get credit for her gallant, if ultimately futile, attempts to combat student debt and interest rates. And President Barack Obama has outlined a plan to hold colleges accountable by creating an affordability scorecard and by tethering federal grants to college prices.

These plans won’t come to fruition, though, unless students join the fight.

Does this sound like a tall order? Good. It is.

GW students once occupied former president Elliott’s office and refused to leave after he put the housing restrictions in place. These students went on to house protesters anyway in Lafayette, Madison and Thurston halls, despite administrative opposition.

That is courage. That is political activism.

Vietnam was another GW generation’s issue. But what will ours be?

If we cannot organize to at least challenge a pervasive issue like debt, while our GW forefathers tackled a war, then frankly, we don’t deserve The Princeton Review’s title of “most politically active.”

The writer is a junior majoring in international affairs.

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