Taking Education Into Our Own Hands

With universities turning to austerity, YDSA has a responsibility to support student bodies when their schools don’t.

The crisis created by COVID-19 has done immeasurable damage to education quality for K-12 and university students across the country. Budgets have been cut, entire departments have been shut down, and critical social services on campuses are scrambling to adapt to the new conditions. Even in the face of this crisis, the academic achievements expected of students have not adjusted in response; the hardest classes and programs are still as rigorous as ever, even with the complete collapse of support for students to overcome their difficulties. 

As it stands, Republicans are uninterested at best when it comes to providing more substantive coronavirus aid through the lame duck, Democrats are unlikely to snag the Senate after the Georgia runoffs, and whether the Democrats would be committed to fighting educational austerity even if they did gain unified control of Congress is an open question. The cavalry is not coming — which means that students have to take the task of academic and social support for their peers into their own hands. This was quite the daunting task for my YDSA chapter at the University of Central Florida (UCF), where we were faced with the challenges of being a brand-new organization on campus while at the same time trying to coordinate a coherent response to the challenges that COVID-19 posed. 

In conversations with each other, we made several observations about the reality of being a left-wing organization on campus. The most important of those observations was just how little presence left organizations had in everyday campus life. Even in the pre-COVID era, where in-person tents and pamphleteering were more common, left-wing messaging on campus focused on what you could do for the organization, rather than the other way around. This meant that the only people you could reach out to were those already amenable to your brand of politics and presentation, while the far bigger group of largely disengaged students simply treated you as the outdoor furniture of campus life. 

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a micro-version of the problem with American politics at large. The great mass of the student body — just like the great mass of the working class — does not have a reason to believe that their participation in political life will yield them anything but obligations to attend meetings and a few patches to sew onto their backpacks. And, just like in American political life, they’re mostly right to believe that. Since the 1970s, American student activism genuinely hasn’t yielded many significant victories even just for students on campus, let alone the working class at large. 

To demonstrate this, pull up your campus’s student organizations page and sort by “politics.” Make a list of all the organizations you’ve even heard of (excluding YDSA, obviously). Then, mark the organizations on that list that have materially helped you personally at some point in your academic career. If there are more than one or two, that’s a miracle. When I did this, the number was zero, and I know for a fact the same is true for many others. 

In the process of reckoning with these facts, my chapter began to brainstorm about how YDSA can be truly different. It was essential that we not be lost in the noise of all the other broadly left organizations on campus, and that we have a presence in campus life for the average student that is meaningfully felt. If someone sees us on campus with our rose-themed paraphernalia, it needs to signal something comforting and refreshing to them, rather than signaling “there’s one of the slightly edgier, annoying people at the tents.” We decided that the best way to accomplish that goal was coming up with something to offer. Something to signal to the average student that we’re not (just) here to propagandize – that we’re willing to demonstrate the value of solidarity through action, and not just slogans

Through deliberating, my chapter came up with a project to do just that: it’s called People’s Office Hours (POH). POH is an education project administered directly by YDSA chapters in which we assemble a dedicated group of volunteer academic tutors, career advisers, and administrative aides whose goal is to fill in the vast gaps in official academic, professional, and social support services in universities around the country by directly providing service to students at campuses with a YDSA presence. 

The project is currently being led by myself, and a few other comrades at UCF YDSA and other campuses in Florida. However, the scale of the problem that POH is taking on — as well as the size of the potential benefit for students across the country — means that, in order for POH to be truly successful, it should have a presence at as many campuses as possible. That’s where you come in. 

The POH project is in need of the following kinds of support: 

  • Current students or alumni who are experienced in their given field or major, and who are enthusiastic about potentially being a tutor for their peers 
  • Students who are currently struggling and are in need of academic or social support who would be willing to be interviewed about where their campuses are falling short and where YDSA could potentially intervene 
  • Any Y/DSA member interested in assisting with the administrative burden of the project — matching students with tutors, interviewing and onboarding potential volunteers, scheduling meeting times, etc. 
  • Any and all information about your campus experience! Where has your university fallen short in terms of support? What classes have been hardest for you? Where can YDSA intervene? 

Anyone who is interested in assisting in any of those capacities should fill out the Google Form here. Any and all help is appreciated, and it’s doubly appreciated if you could share the Google Form on your social media profiles, as well as directly to any friends you think might be interested in the project, whether they be in Y/DSA or otherwise! 

My comrades and I are moving to get this project up and running by the Spring semester, and we’re excited to gain the support and expertise of YDSA members from across the country to do so. 2021 is our time to act. Projects like People’s Office Hours are going to be what gets YDSA the notoriety, membership, and capacity to be the fighting force that it needs to be. 

What projects are your chapters working on? YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit chapter reports to The Activist here.

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