From Friday, March 23 to Sunday, March 25, students from UCR and eight other UC campuses gathered at the State Capitol for the annual Student Lobby Conference (SLC) hosted by the University of California Student Association (UCSA).
The purpose of the conference is to bring together students to “develop lobbying skills, learn more about issues affecting students and higher education, and directly engage elected officials on these issues,” according to the official website.
This year, some of the highlighted issues were student hunger, mental health services and the $140 million increase in funding for the UC from Governor Jerry Brown.
In a 2016 UC-led study, 62 percent of all students at UCR reported being food insecure. Compared to all the UCs, UCR had 20 percent more food insecure students than the system-wide average, which was 42 percent. In order to address this issue, UC students lobbied for the passing of Senate Bill (SB) 1275, which would address the college student hunger epidemic by providing a meal plan for low-income students.
Lack of available mental health services has also been a consistent issue across the UC system. According to an article in UC Davis’ The Aggie written in January of this year, mental health services at UCR are the “worst staffed” with six therapists for 22,000 students along with a total of “seven unfilled positions” according to Andrea Saavedra, a counselor at UCR’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). However, this issue isn’t only exclusive to UCR; UCLA is also a campus who faces issues of understaffing due to the large amount of students at the university. Rodolfo Victoria, a senior staff psychologist at UC Irvine, also described not having “enough staff to provide the services that we want,” according to The Aggie.
In order to address the lack of mental health services, UC students at SLC also lobbied for SB 1004 which would require counties to spend a portion of their Prevention and Early Intervention programs (PEI) funding on mental health services which could include college mental health outreach. Along with SB 1004, the issue of mental health services would be ameliorated by the $140 million increase in UC funding. Out of the $140 million, $70 million would be used to hire more faculty, academic counseling, improve classroom facilities and provide better mental health services.
In an interview with The Highlander, a UC Merced student who chose to remain anonymous argued that lobbying is important to “let policy makers know that (those) bills relate to students at UC campuses” and that “it is crucial that we’re (students) in process of setting these laws that will set foundation for student government at UC Merced.” When asked how the $140 million increase in funding could be used to make an impact on their campus, the student raised the possibility of addressing enrollment growth, improving mental health facilities and aiding in the university’s expansion plans set to finish by 2020.
During SLC, UC students also lobbied for Assembly Bill (AB) 3153 which would allow for students to expand Cal Grant eligibility to summer sessions. Lennin Kuri, a first-year political science student at UCR, spoke to The Highlander about how such discussions apply to UCR. “More than 50 percent of students at UCR receive Pell Grants and other forms of aid,” said Kuri, who currently serves as Government Relations Assistant Director under the Vice President of External Affairs for ASUCR.
In regard to the importance of the SLC for UCR, Kuri stated, “One way to raise student spirit is by making sure students are fed.” It is through these “resources that students will gain trust in the university.” Kuri also added that issues on campus aren’t resolved through “a simple sweater,” referring to the recent R’Gear controversy, but rather through involvement on campus such as attending “senate budget hearings and making sure resources are allocated properly to meet the needs of students.”
After having met with government representatives and their staffers, students were able to inform policymakers about issues that concern university students today. Some elected officials agreed with what they were told whereas others listened respectfully or did not show up at all as was the case of Chad Mayes (R-42) whose district includes portions of the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino. The overall impact of the lobby conference should be seen in months to come as these bills either pass or die.