On Monday, Nov. 21, students from the College Democrats of America organization gathered in the Memorial Union to discuss relevant issues such as student inclusion in decision-making, sexual assault on campus and unionization. The organization believes that college students deserve a say in the decisions and policies that directly impact them. Mike Tipping, Penobscot County’s new Democratic senator-elect, and Laurie Osher, Maine State Representative for the 123rd House District, joined the group of students.
Student voices are widely underrepresented in the Maine legislature, something both Osher and Tipping are trying to address through discussions like this one.
Osher drew on her own experience with one of her staffers, who worked for 13 other legislators, to talk about the issue.
“There’s many more elected officials than there are staff people in the Maine legislature,” Osher said.
The unionization of student workers is an increasingly relevant issue, especially considering the potential partnership between the University of Maine Dining Services and Sodexo, an international catering company. Students employed in dining halls are concerned about what their future could look like, and this brings into question specific issues like raising the student minimum wage and making work-study more inclusive.
“The paid time off bill that passed in 2019 passed with an amendment that made it so you had to be an employee under state statute in order to qualify,” said Orion Schwab, the vice president of College Democrats. “The definition of [an] employee in state statute specifically excludes students who work in the university that they attend.”
Attendees further expressed their concerns with their status as student employees.
“Just because we’re students doesn’t mean we’re not humans,” said Meredyth Waters, the College Democrats president. “Those students in the dining halls are working just as hard as [any state employee] even though they work for the university they attend.”
Waters also stated that the lobbying for that cause was done by the University of Maine System Board of Trustees.
Concerns were also raised about the potential cancellation of Maine Day and its service opportunities, which, although student voices are being taken into consideration, is still decided entirely by a non-student executive board.
Tamara Benson, a member of College Democrats, voiced the fact that it’s impossible to make these vital changes without communication with Board of Trustees members.
“Something else that would be helpful is having access to the contact information of every single Board of Trustees member, and that’s not really public information,” Benson said. “[The board meetings are] intentionally inaccessible to students because they bounce around campuses.”
Meetings are only in person, and students have no Zoom access to them anymore, so testifying and lobbying is made almost impossible.
Another widely held concern is sexual assault on college campuses. Concerns were raised about the ability of safety kits and how accessible they are to students.
“Being a woman on a college campus pretty much means there’s a good chance that you’ve been sexually assaulted,” Osher stated.
While anecdotal, Osher’s assertion is backed up by The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has found that over half of women and almost 1 in 3 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes. Clearly, the pandemic of sexual violence is present across the gender spectrum.
“One in 4 women and about 1 in 26 men have experienced completed or attempted rape,” the CDC states.
However, these numbers may be misleading. CDC researchers know the numbers underestimate this problem because many cases are unreported. Survivors may be ashamed, embarrassed, or afraid to tell the police, friends or family about the violence.
Considering that more than 4 in 5 female rape survivors reported that they were first raped before 25 years old and almost half were first raped as a minor, sexual assault is certainly something relevant to students and higher education institutions.
These student concerns could come into play from a legislative standpoint. Tipping explained that changes to the new legislation will be difficult to change after December, so it’s important that these demands are heard now.