Looming final exams and papers didn't stop four busloads of Foothill College students from taking Monday to go to Sacramento, where they marched alongside their peers and delivered a message to legislators: Stop the budget cuts to education.
And after students chanted that message over the Tower Bridge and down Capitol Mall, some of them relayed their own personal stories to staff members in the Capitol building.
"Our goal is to present our own story," explained Johnson Chan during the bus ride to Sacramento Monday morning. Chan, who serves as the school's student body vice president of finance, said more student groups than ever have asked the student government for financial support this year.
"Legislators are sitting in meeting rooms," he said. "They don't know what's going on outside."
Student Ashley Oropeza said she wished to pose one question to the legislators: "How did you get to where you are?"
"You had your chance," she said. "We want ours."
"We want to show that this is not just a student issue," said Ahmed Mostafa, Foothill's student body president. "This is a California issue. We want our voices heard in that regard."
Like publicly funded schools throughout the state, Foothill College has been devastated by budget cuts. This year the Foothill-De Anza district absorbed $13.3 million in cuts. Next year the district is anticipating a deficit of $10.6 million.
Students talked about the elimination of all French classes, cuts to EOPS, a program for disadvantaged students, and the scaling back or elimination of tutoring programs and the campus writing center.
Mostafa and Etienne Bowie, a Foothill student and the group's "student rights officer," led the marchers forward, cheering "SOS, save our schools" and "Our people, our nation, we need an education." They wore T-shirts with the words "Got dreams?" written boldly in red.
"This is what we've been waiting for!" Bowie shouted through a megaphone on the main lawn before the Capitol, addressing fellow protesters from as far away as Fresno and Pasadena. "Let 'em hear it!"
Though normally De Anza and Foothill students are in friendly competition, a group of protesters from that school called out to the Foothill students to join them in the march. The De Anza students carried a black cardboard coffin bearing the words "Death to Education."
Later, inside the Capitol building, the students shared their individual stories with education staffers in several legislative offices.
"After 20 years I had to get a divorce, and I didn't have an education," said Gita Dehnad, a single mother of three, to Cory Jasperson, an education staffer in Sen. Joe Simitian's office. "For me it's been difficult."
Dehnad, who is hoping to pursue a career in teaching, talked about the lack of English courses, and how Foothill was forced to cut hours at the writing center where she works.
"I have had students come begging for time (at the writing center), and we just don't have the time," she said.
Keish Nishijima, a 2007 graduate of Palo Alto High School, talked about how he was accepted to UC Santa Barbara during his senior year. Though he was given a scholarship covering half his tuition, he was unable to get the student loans he needed to accept his admission.
"My parents had bad credit," he said. "So I ended up at Foothill College."
Now, Nishijima said, financial issues are again "jeopardizing" his education. Recent fee hikes have been stressful, he told Jasperson, as he is not eligible for financial assistance.
The classes he wants are in high demand, and there is no money to create more sections. "Within five minutes" of registration opening, he said, "an English class I wanted to take was full. I'm number nine on the waitlist."
Bowie, who grew up in East Palo Alto, relayed his story as well. A high school dropout at age 16, he said that "In East Palo Alto there isn't any pressure to go to school. There isn't any pressure at all, except to do and sell drugs. Foothill changed my life."
"I have big dreams," he continued, adding that "I'm here for every student, for every young person."
Bowie said the state should emphasize funding education over the prison system.
"Prison is the main training ground to give them more strength," he said in reference to young people involved in crime. Afterward, "they know where to go. They know who the kingpin is."
Jasperson acknowledged the students' stories, promising to relay them to Sen. Simitian. He talked about attending community college himself before transferring to a UC school, and pointed out the senator's work on making parcel taxes easier to pass.
Trustees of the Foothill-De Anza district are currently looking into voter support for a possible parcel tax. "We met with some of your trustees and your chancellor about doing that," Jasperson told the students.
After a long day in the state capital, the students seemed optimistic about the protest, though many were already turning their attention back to school -- after all, it's final exam week at Foothill.
Chan said he hadn't slept Sunday night because he had been prepping for a debate in his communications class. He acknowledged he was giving up precious study time to travel to Sacramento.
"The point is," he said, "if I'm not going to step up no one will know how we're suffering."