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College Students Join Occupy Wall Street Protests


A lack of jobs - not workers - has drawn thousands of people to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. The protesters include recent college graduates who say they're unemployed and that they can not repay their student loans. One question is whether enough of them will mobilize to matter. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Students at 150 public and private colleges yesterday were supposed to hold rallies in support of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that have spread across the country. But the turnout in many places was disappointing. On some campuses nobody showed up. Still, Matthew Segal, one of the organizers, was not discouraged.

MATTHEW SIEGEL: Young people are at the helm of this movement.

SANCHEZ: And the reasons are obvious, says Siegel. People who just finished college, in particular, are hurting.

SIEGEL: With debt, with joblessness, with living at home with our parents well into our mid-20s, being told that we're likely to be less better off than our parents, there is a great deal of frustration there.

SANCHEZ: It's that frustration that got Bernardino Villasenor, a student at University of Texas in Austin, to come out in support of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

BERNARDO VILLASENOR: I have lots of friends who have graduated who are still cashiers. They're baristas. They're working in the service industry. And like you need two or three jobs if you want to pay off the massive student debt that we get here.

SANCHEZ: Villasenor says he tries not to think about the $25,000 he'll have to pay back when he graduates. This seems to be the single biggest issue for students - starting their careers owing tens of thousands of dollars.

CROWD: More education, not world domination...

SANCHEZ: At Florida International University in Miami, students say their problem is bigger than their debt burden, more complicated. Eduardo Martinez is a senior.

EDUARDO MARTINEZ: And we wholly embrace the notion of horizontal systems of democratic government, not vertical systems of hierarchal domination.

SANCHEZ: Translation: Average Americans, not Wall Street and the banking industry, need to be heard now. But unlike the anti-war protests, the anti-apartheid or environmental movements that politicized college students in the past, the say no to Wall Street, say no to corporate greed message has yet to get a critical mass of college students really riled up. That's not to say you won't find students committed to the cause off campus.

Just a few blocks from the White House in a small park, McPherson Square, most of the Occupy D.C. protestors are young. Greg Disney is 19, unshaven, gaunt, in wrinkled clothes. He dropped out of community college in Baltimore this semester to be here.

GREG DISNEY: There's really no point in being in school unless the system gets fixed so we can get jobs when we get out.

SANCHEZ: What do you mean the system?

DISNEY: The system being basically the oligarchy and the whole banking system that's basically not working for us, in our favor.

SANCHEZ: Greg says he's only $4,000 in debt but that's because he's only been in college one year, unlike his friend, Kait Legers from Ohio. What did you get a degree in?

KAIT LEGERS: History, from Ohio University.

SANCHEZ: What do you do with a degree in history?

LEGERS: With a Bachelor's? Nothing. I can't do anything with this.

SANCHEZ: Kate is over $22,000 in debt, which is close to the average debt burden nationally for graduates with a four-year degree from a public institution. But are Wall Street, the banks and corporate greed the blame for your not having a job, I ask. Yes, says Kate, and lots more. The way she and Greg see it, colleges are nothing more than training and recruiting grounds for the Wall Street banks and hedge funds that caused the financial crisis and are to blame for the growing inequality in the United States. And that, says Kate, is why she's here demonstrating.

LEGERS: This is our movement. We're fighting for something here, and this is your fight as well. My mom just keeps telling me don't get arrested again.

SANCHEZ: Kate and Greg say they'll both be here until the first snow falls, then it's back to school. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudio Sanchez