An opportunity to overcome youth apathy

Robert Showah
Opinion Editor

Over the past 10 months, I – along with a talented staff of columnists – have had the opportunity to not only share our points of view with the VCU and Richmond community each Monday and Thursday, but to also do what we can to start and continue a conversation, to motivate our readers to consider different perspectives, to think, ask questions and most importantly to become a part of the answers.

Becoming a part of the answer as students can allow us to have a greater stake in the direction higher education moves for our fellow underclassmen and future generations. But first we must identify what the problems are – some of them students and parents know and some of which they don’t realize.

First, if the government, teachers and counselors continue to insist that each student pursue a college degree, the process ought to be affordable, valuable and reasoned. I do not have the answers to how we can tackle the skyrocketing cost of tuition, but whatever the price, universities must start delivering on their promise of an education of excellence.

VCU can gloat that it allegedly has the lowest tuition rates in the commonwealth, but it is meaningless if students do not genuinely leave feeling that the $25,000 minimum they are paying – with interest – was worth it, helped them gain real, applicable skills after they graduate and will ensure that they will have a dignified job and a sustainable income.

Administrators in their comfy offices, isolated from student interaction, cannot begin to claim they are having a serious conversation about the value, quality and fairness of an education until they start listening to their patrons, many of whom are shelling out their life savings based on a campaign of rhetoric executed so well and that mutes the suggestion of any alternatives to higher education and its overwhelming debt.

Another problem is comprehending the complicated flowchart of the university requirements. This is a problem parents especially do not realize exist. Here families are, making an invest in a product that they haven’t even seen at work. There are no explanations for why certain courses are required rather than others and no logic behind credits, gradingand classroom policies.

The problem is we don’t question university policy because it has become second nature to apply to a college, trust that whatever we are paying for is worth it and then graduate.

I have had some of the best academic experiences and professors during my time at VCU, but I have taken my share of courses that had my parents witnessed them, they would have been outraged, demanding their money back. We need to wake up and start acting as part of the answer.

As people, we know what it takes to be a part of the answer to problems. Almost two years ago, the national deficit was nowhere to be seen on the federal government’s radar until many Americans started speaking up. So many grew so upset with government spending that they actually became too large and loud to ignore. Regardless of what has motivated them, the Tea Party movement in this country has single-handedly shifted political power and momentum and through their voices and votes catapulted America’s over $12 trillion national deficit to the top of the nation’s agenda. For the first time, the debt has been made a priority as serious discussions about fiscal soundness are happening and will likely define the year not to mention the future of American prosperity.

We have also seen people become part of the answer a world away pushing over the first domino that would fuel millions more to do the same. After the toppling of one leader in Tunisia, the people of Egypt in all unlikelihood, after plenty of sacrifice and consistent unity, ended one of the Middle East’s greatest dictatorships in search of a different form of government that reflects their values.

I do not endorse government uprisings or violence in attempting to reform higher education and allow students and parents a seat at the negotiating table, but the greatest challenge we will face in finding answers is overcoming the youth’s trademark characteristic: apathy.

One of my least favorite characteristics about my own generation is our dispassion over the things that matter, often the same things that require the most effort but are the most rewarding when accomplished. When students have a bad professor or are caught up in the frustrating process of the VCU’s bureaucracy, they shrug and say something like, “Next year will be different” or “I can’t wait until I am done with this class.” We don’t act.

Instead, we let it go hoping that next semester or next year will be better. It’s because of these reasons that we remain as a mess of whiners to so many. We are so concentrated on escaping a system where nobody in power is held accountable that we forget that we have the will to change through the democratic process.

Earlier this semester, a group of students from Virginia colleges, a colleague and myself had the opportunity to speak to Sen. Mark Warner. He was asked what plans he supported that would help relieve the burden of student loans. After a policy explanation as to why it was complicated, he ultimately came out and said, “I’m going to be honest; I don’t have a good answer.”

I was taken back by his following remarks, bold and blunt for a politician. He said the reason older people, for example, gain the most attention from Richmond and Washington is because they engage in the process, attend town hall meetings, visit and write their legislators and vote. The old folks we ridicule for having nothing better to do than attend legislative committee meetings are the ones who are influencing the conversation on issues important to them.

The message I write to students here is reminiscent of my first column of the academic year that discussed the death of quality journalism and a hope that we do not descend into a nation of bloggers and advocacy journalists. I encouraged students to not believe and willingly absorb everything they heard through the mainstream media and to take the time to get the story straight. Here, I don’t advocate for anything too dissimilar.

If we do not engage legislators, tuition will continue to rise and universities like VCU will continue to not improve the quality of education but squander their revenue on admitting more students while waiting for their basketball team to swoop in and raise their superficial prestige.

It’s forgotten that states own public universities. If we want be the generation that solves perhaps the greatest issue facing the youth, then we will engage our legislators, lobby and vote. The world is run by the people who show up. As much as we would love to blame politicians, lobbyists, corporations, the media and, yes, professors and administrators, the buck ultimately stops with us.

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