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Uncertainty of the Higher Education System in Illinois

As a student of Chicago State University, I saw first hand the impact of the lack of resources during the two years we went without state funding. My school experienced the most severe cuts as a result of the budget impasse – there were major staff layoffs, the enrollment rate dropped, construction projects were canceled, fewer course were offered, and  student morale decreased. Students were concerned about whether or not the doors of the campus would remain open, making it stressful to focus on a quality education on top of other personal obligations. After over two years without a state budget, Illinois finally received a full budget in July including funding for colleges and universities. Now that we have a budget, many of us are relieved but wonder what’s next and how can we prevent this from happening again.

Ever since I was in the seventh grade I knew I wanted to become an occupational therapist, and I took the appropriate steps to make that happen. I always knew I wanted to be in the health field, so when I learned about occupational therapy and its holistic approach, I fell in love. Occupational therapy will not only allow me to help others but it is a profession that helps me grow and live out my purpose in life, which is to help people. Coming from a single parent home and being the eldest of three siblings, I always strived to make a better life for my mother and sisters and to make my deceased father proud. I knew that pursuing a higher education created a path to career success and my family’s betterment, and CSU was my top choice. It was the only school I applied to that offered a joint Bachelor’s and Master’s program in occupational therapy, had affordable tuition, and a prominent home base in my community. I felt like it was home especially being born and raised from Chicago.

I enrolled in CSU in 2014, just before schools began to experience the impact of the budget crisis. I had transferred there after earning my Associate’s degree, and began my pursuit of a dual degree in psychology and occupational therapy. By the fall of 2016, when I was accepted into the school’s occupational therapy program, we had been unfunded for over a year and rumors started to circulate that our school was closing. Rather than being overjoyed about receiving my acceptance letter, I was terrified that I would have no college to attend. That very special moment I worked so hard for was taken away from me, even though I did all the right things. There are many students such as myself who have had a passion since childhood and are eager to pursue their professional goals, and that pathway was shattered because our legislators couldn’t come together to pass a budget. According to Marketplace.org, minority students were pawns in a political chess game between the state’s Republican governor and Democrat-controlled legislature because neither side wanted to compromise on a state budget.

According to South Side Weekly, CSU serves 3,500 students, most of whom are African American, low-income, and/or returning adult students. The school is very affordable for many of its students, and relies on state funding, receiving the most of any public university in Illinois. State funds account for 31 percent of the school’s total budget, but CSU also bore the largest funding cut in the 2016 fiscal year, with allocations dropping by 65.3 percent between 2015 and 2016. For students, the effect of these institutional funding cuts was compounded by the simultaneous underfunding of the Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) Grant, which helps pay tuition costs for low income students. MAP funding was included in the temporary 2016 stopgap budget for higher education, but the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability’s report estimates that 1,000 students did not re-enroll in both public and private universities in Illinois due to unpaid MAP grants from the 2016 fiscal year.

I could not stand back and watch the University go downhill and potentially close, so I involved myself with the CSU “Budget or Else” committee. I have been to marches, rallies, went to the Illinois House of Representatives’ Higher Education Commission hearing, and traveled to Springfield in support of CSU’s financial woes. Students even shut down the expressway to raise awareness about the issue. It amazes me that in 2017 we are still fighting for something as fundamental as the  ability to pursue higher education. The Illinois legislature made a step in the right direction by passing a budget that keeps education accessible to low income students, but the shock from the severe cuts still impacts my trust in Illinois’ investment in higher education. I want future generations to experience how great of a school Chicago State is and have an opportunity to pursue their childhood dreams without disturbance and the fear of their school closing on them. In order to restore damage that was done from going two years without a state budget we need a greater investment in the next budget process. Without that additional funding I worry about my school ability to recover and serve generations in the future.

 

Marissa Epps was born on the West side but raised on the South side of Chicago. She graduated from Fenger HIgh School at the top of her class and won prom queen. She attended Harold Washington College and received her Associate’s in Arts Degree from Olive Harvey College. After graduating, she transferred to Chicago State University, where she is a student leader pursuing a dual degree in occupational therapy and psychology. Marissa was initiated in the honors college this past Spring and is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Ms. Epps received Outstanding and Exceptional student awards and Central Region Scholar. She is the Organizing fellow for Young Invincibles in the Midwest office in Chicago. Her  future goals are to open a community outreach center and her own OT practice. Marissa have a strong desire for helping people and making a difference and believes taking action is important when you want to see change!