Crushing Dreams and Killing Hope; The Real Impact of The Illinois Budget Crisis

I am currently teaching a class at Chicago State University. Every class (since the beginning of the semester) I have spent the first few minutes talking to my students about what is going on in Springfield and how it is directly impacting them. I want them to be informed. We have had 16 classes thus far. That is 16 times that my class has discussed the Illinois budget crisis, how it relates to healthcare and what it means to them.
Illinois is now into its 9th month without a budget. This means no funding for public higher education. Two weeks ago it was announced that Spring Break was being cancelled at CSU in order to save money and end the semester sooner. Last week every single employee (yes you read that right) at CSU received a layoff notice. This was done as a precaution in case state funding does not come through. Although the President of CSU and the administration have been clear that we ARE NOT CLOSING.

It’s a lot for any one person to process.

This past Tuesday as I entered my class, it felt more like I had walked into a funeral. The looks on my student’s faces were frightening. They looked as if they had been let down. They looked as if they had been beaten. They looked as if they were ready to give up. They looked broken. The struggle for these students is real. Real in a way that it should never have to be. On this day, it was clear to me that I had to pause and take time with them to talk and to just be. This class we were not going to talk about what was happening in Springfield. This day we needed to talk directly about what was happening with them. We needed to talk about how they were feeling and how they were managing to deal with the stress that they were encountering. This day was going to be tough.

We spent nearly 45 minutes of a 75 minute class talking. We spent 45 minutes of precious class time talking about how to manage the stress and anxiety that they students were feeling. I needed to make sure that they knew that there were resources available to them. Many of them had questions….hard questions. For the questions I could answer I did. When I didn’t have the answer I simply said I wasn’t sure and that I would look into it for them. But some questions (like when is this going to end or why are they doing this to us) no one has the answer to.

Thursday came along. I received at least 4 messages from students that they weren’t going to be at class because they were sick. Here we go again. Class started with two separate student presentations. Then we dove right into the material. I purposely finished class 10 minutes early so that I could “check in” with my students. I asked how they were doing and then I braced myself.

“Whats the point?” “This is just too much!” “Why is this happening?” “Don’t they care about us?” These were just some of the phrases I heard. Then one of my students raised his hand. “Professor Sanders, I have a story I would like to share.” Here is his story:

The student started by telling the class that he is an LPN. He said that since there was no MAP funding he had picked up some additional clients so that he was able to pay his tuition. That morning he started with a new client. He got to the clients house and was greeted by his client’s wife. It turned out that the client was an elderly white man. He was a decorated veteran. The client’s wife took pride in showing my student her husband’s medals. My student introduced himself to the client (who is bed ridden). As he got ready to clean him the client said “I don’t want no nigger cleaning me!” At this point, as he continued with his story, my student began to tear up. He paused, gained his composure and continued. He said I responded with a smile “Well this NEGRO will be cleaning you today sir.” Then he went on and did his job. Then he left. He had to head to class. My class.

He told us that as he stood at the train station he saw a train approaching. He was frustrated. He was angry. He felt defeated. He told us that it wasn’t the fact that his client had called him out of his name so much as it was that he felt like he shouldn’t have had to take on another client to begin with. He should have had the MAP money that he was eligible for. The MAP money that our legislatures promised him as a citizen of Illinois. As he stood there watching the train approach he said “God if this train stops here in front of me I’m done. I’m not going to school. I quit. It’s not worth it.” Then, his exact words were “ I kid you not, the train disappeared. And that is the only reason I am sitting here with all of you right now. I can’t quit.”

I texted this particular student today because I was concerned about him. Concerned about his health and well being. Concerned about how he was handling the tremendous stress that he is under. Here is the response that I received:

Thank you so much Professor. LOL. I have had so many days worse than yesterday. It was just this budget stuff, a recent divorce, stuff just got hectic. Your class has been a savior because at least I have had a place to go and talk about real life. LOL. I do realize however I might need to talk to someone before the cracks in my armor become too hard to fix. I’m doing better and my companion says I need to toughen up. LOL. Thanks again for checking on me. I’m going to find a karaoke place and sing my favorite song. How Deep Is Your Love (Bee Gees).

What our Governor and our lawmakers have failed to see here are the real faces of the people that this budget impasse is impacting. The faces of my students. They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, sons and daughters. They are caretakers of children, parents and grandparents. They are our future nurses, OT’s and community health workers. They are all (because I made sure) registered voters.

I don’t know what the future holds for any of my students. What I do know is this. My students are amazing individuals. They are smart. They are strong. They will persevere. I along with the other staff, faculty and administration are here for them in ways that our job descriptions don’t dictate. We are banded together for life in a way that I’m not sure that others can understand. We are survivors. We will make it through this.

One more thing I know – We as a society have to do better. We have to do better for the future of all of us. What is happening here is terrible and it is impacting a group of people who did nothing to deserve it.

As we move into the upcoming election I also know that all of my students will all be exercising their right to vote. They now understand more than ever what their vote means. A lesson that they should not have had to learn in this way.

#savecsu #illinoispubliceducationmatters

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*note – This story was published with permission from my student.