Last week, senior psychology and global studies major Emily Oaks attempted to vote in a student assembly at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras. She was told by security there were no more seats left inside.
“Everyone inside was calling people outside and saying, ‘There are seats, there are seats,’ ” Oaks said.
After an hour and a half of waiting and shoving, she was able to join the student assembly as it approved a 48-hour paro, a halt in classes while students negotiate with the administration.
The students are protesting the administration’s plan to increase tuition rates, limit summer classes and cut financial aid to honors students and student-athletes.
The unrest stems from last year, when Law 7, a law addressing the territory’s current financial crisis, cut the amount of government support the University of Puerto Rico would receive and laid off government employees.
Oaks is studying in Puerto Rico with two other University students as part of the National Student Exchange, a program that sends students from the University of Minnesota to other participating schools in the United States, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and Canada.
But because of the paro, the three may be unable to finish their classes before they return home in mid-May.
Students attempted to call a paro last semester, but the administration cancelled classes instead. Many students participated in a citywide strike against Law 7, University senior history major Chris DiSalvi said.
Since the 48-hour halt of classes last Wednesday and Thursday, the campus has been closed and classes have been cancelled in an indefinite student strike until they reach an agreement with the administration, Oaks said.
“There is no sign right now as to when classes will resume,” DiSalvi said, adding that the strike has been peaceful.
Both DiSalvi and Oaks heard from other students that similar strikes had occurred at the Río Piedras campus before. A 2005 strike went on for so long that the semester was extended into the summer, said Oaks.
Despite the frequency of these student protests, Oaks questions whether the students actually ever achieve their goals in negotiating with the administration.
“Real achievements have not occurred,” she said.
Many professors and faculty members are supporting the strike, and Oaks said students are concerned that if the faculty begin talks with the administration the strike will end before their demands are met.
While the university hasn’t officially stated that the Internet is not available as a result of the strike, DiSalvi said it hasn’t been working since the second day of the paro. He said he thinks it’s because the administration doesn’t want students blogging or spreading their messages through Facebook.
In addition, DiSalvi said he has noticed other groups are using the strike as a platform to speak out about other causes. He said he has seen signs speaking out against the death penalty or advocating for gay rights and independence for Puerto Rico.
“I think a lot of what we would consider ‘liberal’ movements have used this as an opportunity to promote their messages,” he said.
DiSalvi said Puerto Rican students guessed their protests were small in comparison to those in the U.S. DiSalvi explained that student strikes don’t usually happen at American universities.
“I think you have to be impressed that the students are willing to realize that tuition is increasing,” DiSalvi said, although he is trying to remain detached from the strike. “They are not just simply accepting it like in other campuses across the country.”
No Internet, or finals?
After more than a week of cancelled classes and no Internet access in his dorm, DiSalvi said he is a little frustrated with the strike.
He accessed the Internet from a Burger King close to campus on Monday, and Oaks said she “drank way too much coffee” in order to gain Internet access at local cafes.
“Strikers are the majority, but it has affected those who don’t necessarily support it as well,” said DiSalvi.
The University of Minnesota students are concerned classes could be extended, because they have already purchased tickets home.
DiSalvi and Oaks were told to work with their professors to turn in projects and papers early. They could try to get out of final exams should they take place after the group is scheduled to leave.
Some University study abroad programs make sure their programs are separate from other institutions, making sure they can continue should local unrest disrupt normal classes.
David Holliday, National Student Exchange coordinator at the University of Minnesota, said the program prepares for these events, but they are hard to predict.
Holliday said NSE has been tracking the progress of the strike. Situations like this are a concern whenever students go abroad for classes, he said.
The students should be able to work with the coordinator at their school to ensure they are able to get credit for the semester, he said.
DiSalvi said he isn’t really worried about the credit, as he will be graduating when he returns.
“It’s another opportunity to learn,” he said. “Even though it has been difficult for me, it’s another experience that I will be able to remember when I think about during my time in Puerto Rico.”
UMN students have traveled to Florida colleges to collaborate with students on various projects.
When UMN students plan for a vacation, having trip cancellation travel insurance is a worthwhile commodity to check out.
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