Beginning in September, a group of five students in the Urban and Environmental Policy (UEP) Community Internship and Community Organizing and Leadership classes (UEP 310 and 311) — mandatory for all juniors within the major — organized themselves in an attempt to contest what they found to be extraneous out-of-class obligations and to call for financial support.
The majority of students in the class spend over two to three hours a week commuting to their off-campus internships. This commute, in combination with other mandatory commitments such as movie screenings, lunches and speaker sessions, results in some students being unable to fulfill their work study quota granted by Financial Aid.
For the majority of students, estimated travel costs often exceed $100 per semester, according to UEP major Georgia Tucker (junior). Although they each receive a subsidy of $50, students feel that it is not enough; they maintain that the class’s extra commitments result in a disproportionately high monetary burden on low-income students. While the students appreciate the opportunity to work with professional community organizers, they said this did not impede their decision to seek change.
The class began to organize in the first weeks of September when one disgruntled student, Tucker, initiated conversations with her classmates to see if her frustrations were shared by others. She found that they were. A group of head organizers naturally emerged from their mutual desire and willingness to engage in these concerns, and the organizing began.
After many weeks of preparation and with the full consent of the class, Tucker and four other leading class organizers — Kate Zirulnik (junior), Amanda Zeidner (junior), Cassidy Higley (junior) and Michael Jimenez (junior) — sent a list of requests via email to the class’ professor, Peter Dreier, Oct 1.
Dreier openly responded to his class’s requests with a willingness to compromise, agreeing to cancel the next two dinner/movie sessions and promising to search for additional money. He said he would have to further consider other requests, such as cutting the requirement that students keep journal entries detailing their internship experience, to decide how beneficial they would be for the class’s education.
“I’m not sure I’ll be really successful [with providing money to offset internship costs],” Dreier said. “I’ve already provided $50 [as a grant for each student]. If I can find more, I will.”
The organizers attributed much of their success to careful preparation, adhering to lengthy yet important processes such as detailed surveys in an attempt to maximize their legitimacy. Tucker, with the help of her classmates, sent surveys to the entire class asking for information such as time spent traveling to internships as well as student attitudes regarding time commitment and work study conflicts.
Extensive communication and feedback among the entire class followed these surveys — students articulated their concerns, engineered their requests and debated what they considered fair in a long thread of emails.
Lena Owens (junior), a student in support of organization, shared that for her, the financial burden is most difficult. She takes the bus to her internship at LA Voice in MacArthur Park — a 75-minute commute one-way — a choice that may appear frugal but in reality can add up.
“It costs $3.50 to get there and back, which doesn’t seem like a lot to the people who are taking cars. But when you go three times a week that’s $10, and then you go for 10 weeks, and that’s a hundred dollars for transportation that I could have spent toward tuition,” Owens said.
Khloe Swanson (junior) works at Bike Share to finance her unpaid internship, putting her earnings toward gas. Because mandatory lunch meeting often conflict with her Bike Share shifts, she is unable to meet her work study quota.
Despite the financial weight of her internship, Swanson finds the weekly commitment of a five-hour commute most burdensome. She emphasized that she is grateful for her experience and feels that it is a privilege to be in the community internship class, yet maintains that the class can improve.
After the students filled out surveys and discussed the results, the class reached a consensus regarding their requests. Requests included an immediate provision of travel subsidies and/or study grants, decreased time spent out of internship on internship-related activities (i.e. journaling) and canceling class on days with lunch sessions, among others. These requests were detailed in the email sent to Dreier along with the survey information which helped justify their requests.
“I was proud of their ability to organize themselves — they did a good job of getting information, doing research [and] presenting the information scientifically,” Dreier said. “I thought they learned their lesson [regarding organizing techniques] from the class pretty well.”
Swanson and Zirulnik, along with the majority of students involved, acknowledged that as a distinguished figure within the spheres of urban planning and politics who can be found challenging Bill O’ Reilly on YouTube or discussing why Dr. Seuss would despise Donald Trump at the Huffington Post, Dreier is one whose praise should not be taken lightly.
If the students continue to feel the weight of what they consider to be an unfair burden, they may continue to organize until their needs are accounted for, according to Zirulnik.
“We realize [at] this institution we have lots of power,” Zirulnik said. “This program is supposed to serve us as students.”