Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Demonstrators demand student debt cancellation

Organizers see debt and divestment as intertwined issues
Kalina Kornacki
Daily Collegian (2023)

At noon on May 1, International Workers’ Day, at the University of Massachusetts, demonstrators rallied at Haigis Mall, demanding the cancellation of all student debt.

The small rally took place on the same date as UMass’ first ever People’s Assembly, in which local and campus organizations pushed for the University’s divestment from weapons manufacturers, and a day after student protesters dismantled their pro-Palestinian encampment at the behest of University police.

Members of the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation, Graduate Employee Organization, Professional Staff Union, Palestine Solidarity Caucus and Debt Collective held signs such as “CANCEL ALL STUDENT DEBT” and “LABOR FOR DEBT RELIEF.”

The demonstration was led by Ian Rhodewalt, the field organizer for the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation, a coalition of over 60 unions in Massachusetts’ four westernmost counties.

“I think that education is a right, and should be publicly funded by our tax dollars,” Rhodewalt said. “Working people shouldn’t have to go into exorbitant debt to get a degree.”

In 2023, Massachusetts higher education graduates had $400 million in student debt. “Entering the job market for them is a major problem and burden,” Rhodewalt said.

The group has protested at the offices of Representatives Richie Neal in Springfield and Jim McGovern in Northampton. Rhodewalt said they chose to protest at UMass too because it’s the Commonwealth’s flagship university, and because the University board of trustees voted to raise tuition for the next academic year.

Speakers shared stories of taking on debt to pursue education. Rhodewalt himself, a graduate from UMass’ Labor Center, has over $135,000 in student debt.

“That affects my household budget,” he said. Only during the student debt pause was Rhodewalt finally able to replace necessary items, like his car, because the engine died, and kitchen appliances. “I think that’s a common issue affecting many people who are burdened by student debt.”

Madison Albano, a membership organizer for GEO-UAW 2322, the union for graduate students at UMass, graduated from Cornell in 2022 “with a sh*t ton of debt.”

“I had kind of believed this terrible myth growing up that if you work really hard at your studies, you commit yourself to a bunch of extracurriculars, get super involved, work really hard for multiple jobs, you’ll kind of have a good future,” Albano said.

After graduating, she lived with her parents to save money and worked as a substitute teacher. “Almost all of the money I made went to my student loan repayments,” she said.

“When I was 18, going to college, I didn’t realize I would be almost 50 [thousand] in debt coming out of college,” said Jackie Daniels, an organizer for Debt Collective, a national union of debtors seeking to cancel all student debt.

When she began attending meetings, she realized “‘this is doable.’ We see Biden and his administration talking about the Higher Education Act, which they could have used, from the first place, to cancel debt … We can definitely have this achieved.”

On May 22, the Debt Collective is organizing a National Day of Action, which will be held in Washington, D.C., to push President Joe Biden to cancel student debt.

“We’re actually doing it in solidarity with people fighting to end the war in Gaza as well,” Daniels said. “Our modus [operandi] is that we should fund education, not genocide.”

“The University and the U.S. government as a whole is spending a hell of a lot of money on things that are funding genocide and actively killing people overseas. Meanwhile the rest of us are stuck here in debt and working our asses off and still being in debt,” said a UMass Amherst graduate student named Aaron, referring to the financial and recruiting ties the University has with Raytheon Technologies, an aerospace defense company.

Issues of who and what the University funds are related, Aaron said. Some organizations fighting student debt, like GEO and PSC, have signed onto the People’s Assembly: “Whether it’s student debt or whether it’s divestment, I think those are very closely tied issues.”

The Biden administration has decided on a status quo, Daniels said. “But who does it work for? It’s not working for debtors, it’s not working for people in Palestine, it’s not working for people in Israel. We know that this is not something that’s sustainable whatsoever, so we need to do something to make a change.”

In attendance was a social worker from Tel Aviv, Israel, who introduced himself as Lior. After Oct. 7, Lior chose to immigrate to the U.S., “because Tel Aviv is not anymore safe for peace activists like me.”

America funding weapons and genocide is “a big scandal,” he said.

From speaking with many students here, Lior said, “I think you are, the students here, you know more than some people in Tel Aviv in the street about the Israeli conflict,” he said.

He urged students not to be afraid to protest: “In the beginning, people laugh at you. In the beginning of the process, people [are] angry about you. In the end of the process they say you are right.”

After demonstrators finished taking turns speaking, Rhodewalt led the group in chanting “What do we want? Cancel student debt! When do we want it? Now!”

Rhodewalt then invited the group to convene with the rest of the People’s Assembly on Metawampe Lawn outside the Student Union at 1 p.m.

Alexandra Rowe can be reached at [email protected].

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