When Vanessa Martinez, associate professor of anthropology, talks about the student debt crisis in America, she isn't just giving a lecture based on theory and research. She is speaking from first-hand experience.
"I'm a faculty member and a student, and I have $120,000 in student debt," said Martinez, who teaches full time at HCC and is also a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
That's one reason why Martinez attended a speakout against student debt Thursday morning in the HCC courtyard. She was holding a sign that said, "$26,000 average student debt in MA. "Mine is way beyond that," she said, "even though I've been working all along."
The rally attracted several dozen HCC students and staff and others who came from as far away as Boston and New Haven, Conn., to stand in solidarity with student from HCC who organized the event.
"The point is to raise awareness of the student debt crisis, trying to get students involved on campus and in the community to speak out about budget cuts and other issues facing community college," said Nicole Ouimette, vice president of the Anthropology-Sociology Club.
Ouimette, a second-year student at HCC, said she has already accumulated $15,000 in student debt herself. She noted that, overall, student debt in the United States now totals more than $1 trillion. She also said that in the last 30 years, education costs in the United States have risen 900 percent.
"This is not inflation," she said. "This is erosion of the public education system. I'm upset, because my fellow students and I are swimming in debt. We cannot thrive in an educational system that treats us like we are customers at the local mall."
Joe Mirkin came all the way down from Greenfield to attend the rally. "Student debt has affected my life and the lives of many people I know in negative ways," said Mirkin, a student a Greenfield Community College.
Patrick Burke, from Northampton, said he had to take time off from Westfield State because of increasing debt. "I can't afford it," he said.
"I have $15,000 in debt. I have to choose between paying my rent and paying my student loans," he said.
Holyoke City Councilor Aaron Vega, a candidate for state representative and an HCC alum, spoke at the rally. He said one of the greatest moments of his life was when he paid off the last of his student loans. "It's very important to me that Massachusetts invest in education to try to keep the costs down," he said.
He noted that when he attended HCC the costs were about a third of what they are today. "The increase is exponential," he said.
He urged students to continue to advocate for affordable education.
"Keep on fighting," he said.
(Photos): Scenes from the speakout against student debt.