These Brooklyn college students have a message for Congress

By Jillian Berman, Reporter

Like most college students still at a school event on a Friday afternoon, the group of 30 or so students gathered in a large classroom at Medgar Evers College last week was initially not the most enthusiastic. Some needed coaxing to sit in the circle of chairs set up for them in the middle of the room. The first question of the afternoon was met with a pause before a young woman finally raised her hand to offer an answer.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) pulls a quintessential millennial move, taking a selfie with Brooklyn college students.

But just 20 minutes later, the students assembled at the Crown Heights, Brooklyn, school that’s part of the City of the University of New York system, were so eager to speak that their hands were raised, even as their peers were still talking. Thoughts about financial aid, the criminal justice system, gender equality and early childhood education began pouring out.

The students stayed late on a Friday afternoon to share their opinions and concerns with two Congressmen: A representative of their own Brooklyn, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). Friday’s event was the 15th stop on Swalwell’s nationwide tour to probe millennials about the issues they care about so he can bring them to the attention of his colleagues in Washington.

Swalwell is well-suited to the task of picking millennials’ minds because he is one. The 35-year-old chairs Future Forum, a group of the youngest representatives in Congress. He’s also working towards paying down his nearly $100,000 in student loans he took on to attend college and law school. “I get it, I hear you on a lot of these issues that you’re facing or that you’re going to be facing when you get out there,” Swalwell told the Brooklyn students.

Friday’s group expressed concerns that are often missed by the reporters, pundits and policy makers obsessing over millennials demanding state of the art college gyms or acting entitled in the workplace. The students were there to share with the two congressmen “what it’s like to be a student in the 21st century and more importantly what it’s like to be an urban student in the 21st century,” Gladys Schrynemaker, the associate provost at Medgar Evers, said at the start of the event.

The importance of improving early childhood education was particularly important to the Brooklyn students. Some argued that it was an issue that policy makers should prioritize above free college or criminal justice reform because it plays such an outsize role in helping young people make it to college and avoid worse outcomes. This impressed Swalwell. “They get that, we shouldn’t lose sight of that,” he said.

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Many others complained about growing housing expenses in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, “It’s hard to survive because the cost of living in New York is ridiculous,” one woman said. Others noted the inherent difficulty that comes with working, raising kids and going to school all at the same time. “I’m constantly juggling,” one woman said.

Still, Swalwell said some of the worries students shared in Brooklyn were similar to those he’s heard from other millennials around the country. Concern about finding a job to pay off student loans was a common theme. Few said they could imagine owning a home any time soon. “The American dream for a lot of millennials is kind of dying,” one woman said, after sharing that she would be leaving the U.S. to attend medical school because the cost here was just too high.

Swalwell noted that a word cloud created by attendees featured many of the same buzz words — student loans, jobs, free college etc. — as earlier events. “They’re all so similar,” he said.

The event also spent some time on entrepreneurship, a major theme throughout Swalwell’s previous stops on the Future Forum tour. As part of his trips across the country, he’s traveled to co-working spaces and met with young business owners and scientists. Swalwell said he was drawn to Brooklyn in part because of its entrepreneurial spirit. “Brooklyn is where it’s happening, when it comes to the innovation economy,” he said in an interview.

But Swalwell said he’d like to see the fruits of the so-called innovation economy spread around equally. During the event he asked the mostly black group of students whether they felt like Brooklyn-based tech startups were providing them with opportunities. “If it’s anything like Oakland, where I’m from, we’re seeing a lack of diversity,” he said. The group seemed to agree that was also the case in Brooklyn. “My concern is to really make sure that every kid has the freedom to dream,” he said.