By Abraham Mahshie
"All right, let's talk about this 'campus life' thing," announces Mary Virginia Watson as she presses another cigarette into her ashtray at the Jim's Restaurant near Crossroads Mall. It's after 9 o'clock in the evening and a few students have trickled in - some undergrads, some grads, Hispanic, white, an African-American, men and women. They study everything from anthropology to engineering.
But they all have one thing in common: They're concerned about the quality of their education at the University of Texas at San Antonio, increasing tuition, and the university treading on their constitutional rights.
The Progressive Student Organization at UTSA has existed for about a year, loosely forming when Watson and Margaret Jones were protesting the U.S. intent to go to war in Iraq at the "free speech zone," an area of UTSA reserved for protests. They met Erin Zayko and discussed organizing motivated students to address some of the problems they were facing at UTSA. Erin did the paperwork and the PSO became an official student organization.
As Watson sips her coffee, and Zayko shuffles through some notes from the thesis she's working on, Jones helps push another table in at the restaurant to fit more students. The group begins discussing their research on the "Campus Life Initiative," a proposal by UTSA to double the size of the student rec center and add sports facilities by incrementally raising tuition each semester to a total of over $250 by 2008.
Last semester the PSO held two events to help raise student awareness: a globalization forum and "Preach to the Choir," a night at Café Revolution with music, poetry, and discussion. "UTSA is a microcosm of the rest of the world. Here we learn the tactics for change," explains Joel Settlers, a junior and political science major. "We need to see the big picture. We have to do more than write a thesis about it. We need to plug it into real life."
Settlers heard about the PSO at a party before he transferred to UTSA and saw the group as a way of using his talent in sketch comedy to make students question the issues. "At the Globalization Forum we did a game show called Third World Exploitation," he explains. "In the stunt round we had the contestants assemble and dissemble a pair of jeans. People were watching; it created a visual of working on clothes. In the end nobody won, 'because nobody wins in the Third World!' Then a CEO comes out: 'I'm the winner!'"
Jones, a third-year graduate student who has studied at UTSA for seven years, has seen many changes occur on campus. "When I came here professors knew your name, and they were from top universities. Now they're overworked, and the school is not improving the quality of the education. They're going to raise tuition so three or four thousand students can go to a game while the other 20,000 can cover the bill. Why don't you start organizing students to go to the state legislature in 2005 and lobby for more funding? That would improve student life immensely."
Many of the active members are graduate students or seniors, and are too busy to promote PSO's membership, jeopardizing its future. "It has the potential, if it lasts the next couple of years, to balance out student government and the politics of the administration," explains Jones. "One or two more people per semester, 12 people can do a lot."
"Twenty-two hundred dollars for 12 hours this summer. When I saw the bill I cried," said an African-American woman, a thick biology textbook in her hand and her pack bulging from her back. She spoke with Jones at the Voter Education Forum and heard about tuition deregulation and how her fees would increase more for "campus life" if she voted yes. In the end the resolution passed with 63 percent of the vote. Only about 2,500 of UTSA's almost 25,000 students voted.
"The administration said now its time for concerned students to be part of committees. There's the potential to call a referendum with 400 signatures, but school's almost out. Finals are coming. We tried, but we have to accept defeat, at least it was a democratic process," Settler says. "That's what we defend as members of this organization." •