Blog: Small Numbers and Small Lives Add Up

By Kevin Kuzma

The flower deliverers and the caterers are the first people on the streets of Capitol Hill most mornings. About 5 a.m., they pull their vans up onto curbs that in a few hours will be clogged with young people making their way between government offices. They carry enormous displays up staircases and wheel tall stacks of trays carrying sandwiches and desserts down ramps into parking garages.

This is all orchestrated with precision. The garage doors come up as they roll their loads downhill, and the glass doors swing open to take in the displays a few seconds after a short knock.

These are all merely preparations for a day on the hill, and it all happens and disappears before anyone has a chance to see or consider who delivered the flowers or from where the food came. Their work adds to the experience and the nuance of Capitol Hill, but it’s also taken for granted.

I can’t help but draw some parallels to this to yesterday’s career college student rally on the west lawn of the Capitol building. Organized by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, about 2,000 students and educators came from all over the nation to protest the Department of Education’s "gainful employment" rule.

Wearing navy t-shirts with the words "My Education, My Job, My Choice", or in some cases the medical scrubs they wear to work every day, they watched as Congressmen took a small stage and launched into emotional speeches about the rule and how it would limit access for low-income students and minorities to vital careers. They shouted and applauded as they heard from our nation’s leaders about America’s reliance on workers like them — people with the necessary skills and training for critical jobs in health care, technology, and other fields. This was the first time that many of them were hearing how much they mattered in life (maybe, in some cases, from anyone, but certainly for the first time from people in such important positions.)

Senator Rob Andrews looked out on the crowd and said, "This is a sight. This is an American sight."

He was talking about the diversity of the crowd, which was obvious in everything from skin color to style. These were students and graduates who’d taken the non-traditional route through college, who’d faced enormous odds, and overcome mistakes and certain life circumstances to make something of themselves. And, he was talking about the moment itself, a group of people freely coming together to take a stand on a political matter.

Senator Alcee Hastings told the crowd that America "couldn’t do it without them." He meant survive — that each person fills a critical role in the labor force, filling vital support positions that strengthen the entire country and let it go on about its business.

When the rally concluded, many of these students went from building to building to sit in on private meetings with Congressmen to share their thoughts on gainful employment. Some were there to merely tell their stories and let the politics handle themselves. Their stories were incredible and effective.

There was a young woman who worked for five years in food service for the same company and developed food allergies and was laid off. She’s now a computer programmer and she hasn’t graduated college yet. There was a wood worker whose hands couldn’t handle the beatings they were taking any longer. He needed a way to support his wife and new baby. Thanks to his degree, he’s a technology instructor now.

There is a feeling in Washington that legislators are finally waking up to gainful employment. More see the unfairness and the one-sided Senate hearings. Many elected officials see that Senator Harkin is on a one-man witch hunt against for-profits. Opinions are changing, and the longer a decision takes, the more people who see the flaws in the rule’s logic. For one day, graduate and student stories leveled some perspectives.

I’ve written many times in the past about how career college students want relatively simple lives, to better themselves, to use their education to raise themselves about mere jobs waiting tables or tending bar. But seeing them all together, I saw a different dynamic: all those small, quiet lives, when taken together, add up to an enormous collection of skill and experience.

And here it is, the morning after the rally, and all those students and graduates have gone back home, back to their lives. They’re making their own contributions again in a quiet way, most likely unnoticed, unappreciated, except to themselves and their families, and that’s what matters most.

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