The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 5, 2011

UPJ students protest funding cuts

For The Tribune-Democrat

HARRISBURG — A contingent of 21 Pitt-Johnstown students awoke before 7:30 a.m. Tuesday – a near-unthinkable time for most in college – to plead with state legislators in Harrisburg for their university’s budget appropriation.  

The trip, part of the university’s Pitt Day and of a larger movement by state-funded schools to combat Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget cuts, was organized by administrators and student-government leaders throughout the Pitt system.

Some students taking part in the trip felt a personal obligation to lobby for more funds.

Freshman Megan Stivison, 18, of Johnstown, said she is not usually politically active but felt she needed to act against the proposed cuts.

“I’m paying for my own education,” Stivison said. “I live at home to save money.

“It’s just too much,” she said.

UPJ junior Adara Cohen, 20, said her family in Philadelphia would be hit hard by any cuts to state-related universities.

“It’s going to be hard. We’re a single-parent family (and) my brother’s going to college next year.”

With her brother planning to attend Temple, tuition increases at state-related schools would affect Cohen’s family.  

Student leaders and administrators had mounted a publicity campaign to gain attention for the event, with instructors urged to be lenient on students missing class to attend.

“We’re going to try to do anything we can to show (that the budget proposal) affects us in a negative way,” Jacob Shirk, UPJ student senate president, said.

Shirk also helped advertise a letter-writing campaign to sway local legislators’ opinions.

The Harrisburg lobbying session represented the bulk of the campaign.

The event centered on student-legislator meetings in the state Capitol building, with organizers directing students to representatives and senators from their home districts.

According to university administrators, 1,472 Pitt students list home addresses in Cambria and Somerset counties, with many attending the Johnstown campus.

With most Democratic representatives opposing the budget cuts, the students found themselves lobbying to legislators already on their side.

A group of students trying to speak with Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, were told by aides that Wozniak already supported their movement.

Four UPJ students, three from the Johnstown area, met with Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, for over an hour to discuss the budget, state politics and education.  

Junior Amanda Witters, 21, of Lebanon, said she felt more at ease after speaking with Burns, a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

“Each of us told him our stories and our concerns,” Witters said. “I feel better, a little bit.”

According to Witters, Burns suggested the cuts would be reduced during legislative debate, with Pitt students likely shouldering a smaller burden than they may expect.

“Budget cuts are going to have to happen. (I’m) completely aware of that,” Witters said.

“But I’m not going to see my tuition double overnight ... I hope.”