USF Students Voice Concerns

U.S.  Sen. Nelson meets with USF students to discuss debt, the Dream Act and other issues.

                                                                                                                                                                 Photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Vickie Chachere

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May 3, 2012) –   From University of South Florida students’ lips to the U.S. Senate’s ears.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson pledged to take to Washington student’s stories of their debt burdens and of juggling full-time jobs with full class schedules to avoid piling on more as lawmakers wrestle with how to keep the interest rates on some federal student loans low.

(Update: Sen. Bill Nelson mentioned USF during Senate Debate. Watch the video clip.)

The Senate is scheduled to vote next week on a measure that would keep the interest on certain federal student loans from doubling from its current 3.4 percent rate by the end of June. More than 7 million borrowers would be affected by the interest rate increase, but it will cost Congress $6 billion to keep rates at current levels.

Nelson, D-Florida, met with about three dozen USF students for more than an hour Thursday to gather their stories and discuss a wide range of issues, from immigration issues to voting rights. Mixing in history lessons and campaign politics, Nelson said it’s important for lawmakers to understand the consequences of their vote.

“The stories I have heard have been heart-wrenching about the amount of loans taken out,” Nelson said.

Christopher Cano, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, told Nelson he might have $150,000 in loans from two previous bachelor’s degrees and his graduate degree by the time he expects to graduate. With prospects for earning a large salary dimming in a struggling economy, he said he is worried about what the future holds.

“How am I going to finance a house? How am I going to start a family?” Cano said. “Sallie Mae is one woman who is just beating me up right now.”

The House of Representatives has produced legislation that would cover the cost of subsidizing Stafford Loans with cuts from healthcare. Senate Democrats are pursuing a plan that would cover the cost through taxes on high earners in certain corporations. The differences reflect the realities of election year politics, with both sides staking out ground reflecting campaign themes.

Emmanuel Catalan, a senior political science major, told Nelson his concerns about student loans is making him and others rethink professional careers knowing they will incur huge amounts of debt in law and medical school.

“What are you saying to students? We say if we work hard we can make something of ourselves but how are we doing that if we are not making it better for us to go to college?” Catalan said.


Turning his attention to another hot-button issue, immigration reform, Nelson also asked students if any of them had struggled with being an undocumented immigrant. Nelson is a co-sponsor of the Senate Democrats version of the DREAM Act, legislation that would allow students to obtain legal status if they were 15 or younger when they came into the country, have lived here for at least five years, have good character, have graduated from high-school or obtained a GED or attend college or serve in the military for two years.

Alison Giron, a senior biology major, raised her hand and told the senator of growing up in Miami and discovering for the first time as she was about to graduate from high school that she was not a U.S. citizen. Born in Honduras, Giron was able to obtain her citizenship after her grandmother became a citizen and Giron became her legal dependent.

She said she knows of others in similar situations who have gotten married to earn legal status or joined the military and faced deployment.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, announced a compromise DREAM Act plan which would provide visas to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children if they attend college or serve in the military, but it would not give them permanent, legal U.S. residency. The details of Rubio’s proposal are still being drafted.

Nelson said he was awaiting more details on Rubio’s proposal, but added:  “If that’s the only thing we can pass, I am certainly open to it. But that’s not going to solve the problem.”

Nelson commended the students for their interest in current events and their participation on the political process.

 “I see the younger generation getting interested in politics and government and public service,” Nelson said. “You guys can usually smell out folks, you can spot a phony. Are they in for themselves or are they really in it for public service? As you all are making your career decisions, think about that. The country needs you.”

Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.