Students to Sallie Mae: No More Debt-for-Diplomas!
This is a collection of stories and reflections from students and recent graduates who attended the Sallie Mae shareholder meeting on May 24th in Newark, Delaware.
By Sophia Zaman, a recent graduate and USSA activist from UMass – Amherst
When the New England crew arrived at Sallie Mae’s headquarters in Newark, DE, we were surprisingly unimpressed. “That’s it?!” some shouted as we pulled up to the Toys-R-Us parking lot where we would be gathering beforehand. It felt like we were in an industrial parkway, tucked away from the rest of society where no matter how hard we yelled, we would not be heard. As we stepped off the bus and I saw the gathering of students and allies from DC, Philly, New York and Florida, I thought “Challenge Accepted.”
As we waited for everyone to arrive, I met students who traveled over twenty-one hours to get to Delaware. Like me, they had personal experience with Sallie Mae’s unfair lending practices and wanted to do something about it.
Soon after, I was pulled aside to receive my cap and gown. I along with a few other students would be part of the outside crew, who would be holding a mock graduation ceremony, where I’d be receiving debt instead of my diploma. I was told I would be sharing my story with the group. I thought about all the things I wanted to say to Albert Lord, the CEO of Sallie Mae who recently built his own personal golf course from the student loans that came from me, the students at the action, and across the country.
Those thoughts were ripped out of my head as we arrived at Sallie Mae’s headquarters only to be met by a sea of orange cones restricting our movement and a crowd of state troopers, anticipating our arrival. Sallie Mae had called them here to prevent us from getting in, to keep us outside and away. When we spilled out of the first bus, fists held high, chanting “Sallie Mae, you can’t hide! We can see your greedy side!,” the marshals lined up protecting us on both sides. We marched forward and began our ceremony.
At this point, I was called to speak, to share my story. I could feel the line of police behind me and hear their dogs barking. Victor called me forward to step up onto the soapbox and I began when he chained me to my debt. But as soon as I got a few sentences in, a police car came behind me, pushing the crowd backwards. The line of police pushed us, kept pushing us until we were relegated to the sidewalk. I knew they were doing their jobs, the police, by keeping us out, but I felt so personally affronted. I was here for them. For their families. For their children. And their children’s children.
But I took a few steps forward. I looked out at the crowd and was reassured by their faces. I took a deep breath and began again, “As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted!” And so it went. I told the crowd how I was the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, who came to the States for a better life for their family. I told them how my sister and I are currently over $200,000 in debt and how this wasn’t the American Dream we were promised.
As I passed the mic and heard the stories of students after me, the collective narrative of student loan debt, I felt surprisingly empowered. Here we were, a community of students and workers, holding Sallie Mae accountable to their predatory practices, throwing back the student loan debt scam back in their faces. Even when the riot police arrived, my voice got louder, booming with the confidence and support of this amazing community.
When we heard from the inside crew, who had gotten into the shareholder’s meeting to speak with CEO Albert Lord and hand over 42,000 petitions asking Lord to work with students, they said they could hear our chants. We had stalled two meetings because people kept leaving to take pictures of us outside. I knew that in that moment, we had the power – the power to make Sallie Mae listen. To hear us. To work with us. Sallie Mae might try to bankrupt my generation, but we were there to say that we won’t stand for that.
By Curtis Hierro, of University of Central Florida SLAP
On May 24th I had the privilege of joining students, community leaders and workers from around the nation in confronting Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest holder of private student loan debt, at their shareholder meeting in Newark, Delaware. Sallie Mae has stood as one of primary proponents of the failed “debt for diploma” model; forcing a generation of college student into to debt in the pursuit of a college degree. As a first generation college student, coming from a low-income home, I have felt first hand the impact of this flawed model. Despite having grants and scholarships for my undergraduate career, increasing education costs forced me to take out student loans. By the time I finish my graduate degree I will be looking at over $70,000 in student debt, including loans owed to Sallie Mae. Seeing how my loan payments will go to funding Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord’s exorbitant salary (and private golf course) I felt as if I should express my frustrations to the Sallie Mae chairman, in person.
Making the almost 20 hour drive up from Florida with fellow SLAPatistas, we were instantly energized upon arriving in Delaware and seeing over a hundred other student, community and labor activists. Sallie Mae certainly seemed to expect us with the employment of hundreds of police around a blocked off parameter of their national headquarters. I was fortunate enough to be apart of the delegation going into the actual shareholder meeting. The “Sallie Mae 5”, as we were dubbed, consisted of current students and recent graduates, each of whom had a score to settle with the predatory student loan lender.
Armed with a papers documenting our shareholder status (thanks to labor ally SEIU) and a box of over 43,000 petitions asking Sallie Mae to change their lending practices, we marched together past the riot-gear-adorned police and their barking dogs. Upon entering the lobby we were quickly engaged into a debate on whether the entirety of our delegation would be allowed into the shareholder session. As Sallie Mae tried stalling us inside, the voices of the hundreds of students and activists rallying outside began to make its way into the lobby. Nervous and surprised looks came over the Sallie Mae suits as they were continually drowned out by the chants of solidarity from our friends and allies outside. After almost an hour, our stallers relented and allowed our delegation into the meeting. Sitting down and taking surveillance of the room it was stirring to see the leadership of one of the leading corporations behind the economic and political policies indebting an entire generation. The lack of diversity in the room was extremely evident, with much of the board and shareholder body consisting of white older men. When a Q & A session was opened up to discuss opening proposals the room stood silent until each one of the “Sallie Mae 5” stood up and held the corporation accountable for their atrocious attacks on students, graduates and America’s future. After our remarks, we stood together as the heavy box of petitions was dropped in front of Mr. Lord.
Joining our friends outside we each recalled what we had experienced outside, and how without their help we wouldn’t have made it in. As the hundreds of us chanted and marched from Sallie Mae headquarters one thing stood perfectly clear. This was just the start. Sallie Mae may have heard us, but the struggle is not over. As students graduate with more debt than ever, in an economy rigged to benefit the top 1%, including CEO’s like Mr. Lord, we have no choice but to fight back. Sallie Mae must keep their corporate money out of politics, forgive years of student debt and agree to a lowering of their interest rates to federal levels. Sallie Mae must do what is right and put the American people and our nation’s very economic future before their shortsighted profit. Until then Sallie Mae will have to contend with the combined might of a generation of students, graduates and workers fighting for a future where higher education is a right, rather than a commodity.
By Annie Mombourquette, of UMass – Amherst SLAP
Two months ago, students from around the country and I went to Sallie Mae headquarters to talk to CEO Albert Lord about Sallie Mae’s unfair loaning practices. Instead of listening to our concerns, Albert Lord called the police and I was arrested along with 35 other students.
Last week, many students and I returned to Sallie Mae. As a stakeholder in Sallie Mae, I arrived in Newark, Delaware with the intention of attending the annual shareholder meeting to ask questions about the re-appointment of Albert Lord to the board of directors. The five stakeholders were greeted with dozens of state troopers, police dogs and riot police. We walked by towards registration as bus loads followed behind us to speak in front of the building. After over an hour of negotiations, we were allowed to enter the meeting to deliver our petitions and speak our piece.
While the board of directors did not answer our questions, we were allowed to speak and to express our discontent. Two months ago, this was unfathomable. Two months ago, the police were called to arrest us. Students from around the country are uniting against unfair loan practices. Students are demanding loan repayment options and a decrease in incredibly steep interest rates. Students are letting Albert Lord know he cannot hide. We can see his greedy side. And this time, Sallie Mae is listening.
By Alexa Nelen, of University of Central Florida SLAP
Last Thursday I joined 200 students, workers and activists in Newark Delaware where we protested the Sallie Mae meeting of Shareholders. As I along with my peers filed off of the bus, following Victor Sanchez, USSA President, police and their dogs faced us with abrasive resistance. “No justice, no peace!” was the mantra that echoed throughout he crowd. We were students, united in our struggle and our passion for education, who were no longer going to be ignored. Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord has continuously denied meetings with students and representatives from Student Labor Action Project and USSA, but now they were going to have to listen.
We marched straight to the front gate of the Sallie Mae headquarters where the annual meeting of shareholders was being held. Delaware police, one after the other, tried to block our advancements, but 200 students, workers, and union supporters marched on to the front lines. We were halted by a blockade of Delaware police. There we set up our podium and started the commencement ceremony. I am a senior at the University of Central Florida and I will graduate college with at least $10,000 in student debt. When I entered college, my projected amount of debt was $0 because I had scholarships and Federal Pell Grants. But instead of maintaining assistance to students and families for education, the Florida and Federal governments have stripped hundreds of thousands of students’ financial aid. What are we supposed to do now? Stay quiet? Well to that I say “NO!”
The biggest threat to social justice movements is the apathy of young people. That apathy most often comes from feelings of defeat or disempowerment. Standing amongst those students that Thursday morning was the most powerful, emotional and driven I have felt to this day. Students and workers, standing in solidarity for our futures will always be inspiring, because when you have a family behind you, CEOs and legislators and police officers seem so miniscule. Through speeches, chants, marching and dancing we stood united against the predatory loan practices that shadow all of our futures. Albert Lord, it’s not over; you will see us again.