I have to be real, here. Economically, Berklee was a long shot when I decided to apply. It was a long shot when I was accepted. It was a long shot after the first semester, second semester, and third semester. Not because I had any hesitation about attending, not because of the stigma that accompanies attending an art school, and not because I would have to move across the country from sunny California to blizzard Boston. It was a long shot for one reason: money. Berklee wanted it, and I didn’t have it. I don’t come from means, and no one in my family does. I come from a long line of hardworking creatives who always end up sacrificing dreams for practicality. Well, I wasn’t going to do it! Music is my dream, and I’m going pursue it, whatever the cost. Berklee must’ve taken that “whatever the cost” part seriously because when they invited me to a ritzy welcome ceremony at the Grammy Museum in LA with the other lucky new students, they certainly didn’t forget to mention the estimated 3% increase in tuition year over year. Even though it took loans, crowdfunding, scholarships, and everything my family and I could scrape together, I just knew it would be worth it when I got to Berklee. The education would be top shelf, the teachers would be extraordinary, the facilities would be pristine, and the experience would be unmatched.
The reality was that Fall 2015 began an inexplicable love-hate relationship with an administration at an institution that I had strived to be a part of for years.
There are experiences at Berklee that have delighted me and for which I am truly grateful: the fellow musicians I’ve met, some of whom have become friends, and some of whom have become admired from a distance, the professors who have taken me under their wings and encouraged my progress, the Songwriting Department’s belief in me, the Songs 4 Social Change contest, the student clubs, the concerts, the shows, the ensembles, and the times when the community is at its best.
There are also experiences that have dismayed, frustrated, and befuddled me: the amount of students struggling to pay tuition and the extremely understaffed financial aid and academic counseling offices, the accounts of lost paperwork by the FA office, the students who become unenrolled yet continue to play in huge concerts and shows, making Berklee look great, but receiving no assistance in completing their education, the relentless pest issue in every building, the classrooms, rehearsal rooms, and ensemble rooms with damaged and broken equipment, the instructors who continuously receive horrific reviews from students and keep their jobs, and the continued external cosmetic improvements made to Berklee, despite cries that these funds could be better allocated elsewhere combined with the lack of transparency around how funds are being allocated.
That new sign outside of the 150 Mass Ave. building made finals week even more emotional than it would usually be. Every day, I heard students outraged about why Berklee would put up this new sign when there were so many issues facing students and the school that could use some (financial) attention.
I could list more and YOU could list more, and you know what? YOU SHOULD. Since I’ve been at Berklee, I’ve seen protests against racism, sexism, and every other kind of discrimination, except classism. The fact is that few of us are in a class that can afford to pay this high tuition outright. We don’t have the money, our parents don’t, our grandparents don’t, and so we are left scrambling from semester to semester to stay at a school we love for helping us become better but despise for making it so hard to stay in. We use that anger and frustration we feel to apply for more scholarships, apply for more loans, and of course, post angry, individual messages on social media. I have yet to see us harness our collective voice to protest against this. That is what I believe we must do.
I’m not transferring or dropping out. Berklee can forget about that. I. EARNED. MY. SPOT. That has been my mantra. I auditioned TWICE before I was accepted, but didn’t give up. Since I’ve been at the college, I’ve worked harder than I have in my entire life (as I’m sure most of us have). This is MY SCHOOL as much as it is anyone else’s. I plan to stay and I will graduate. Because if we quit, what will there be left for the thousands of kids coming after us? The same situation and the same frustration? Think about it: Berklee has a 50% graduation rate, which means that they’re basically cycling in freshman every year, half of which they know (statistically) will never make it across the stage, and many of which they know will leave without a degree and with some form of debt. The student loan debt crisis doesn’t just affect us. A study found that 1 in 10 Cal State Students is homeless. Another article stated that 1 in 5 Cal State students goes hungry to save money. That’s just the state where I’m from. What about where you’re from? What about where we’re at now? Here are the steps I suggest:
1. HARNESS OUR COLLECTIVE VOICE/OWN THE NARRATIVE
Let’s talk to people at Berklee and outside of Berklee about what’s happening. Get your family and your community to talk about it. Reach out to your hometown newspaper about what’s happening, and by all means, reach out to us at Berklee Groove. Let’s organize with those at Berklee and outside of Berklee who are willing to help us address this issue in a more official capacity than social media (and when we do use social media, let’s do it in a more intentional way). We can drive this conversation forward if we take ownership of it.
2. WORK TOGETHER TO RAISE OUR OWN FUNDS
The Financial Aid and Scholarship offices are only going to do so much. Just like we have study groups, we should start scholarship groups, where we all research available scholarships out there, present them to the group, help each other write the best essays, and encourage each other when it gets hard. Applying for scholarships is like another job within itself, so it’d be great to support each other around this.
3. JOIN OUTSIDE GROUPS ADDRESSING THE LARGER ISSUE
There are many advocacy groups addressing the accessibility issue in higher education. Find a local or national group. Join it. Stay active. I can tell you now that I’m a part of a group that has taken me many places, including The White House to address these issues. It sounds like a lot on top of everything else we have to do to maintain good grades and relevance, but when change comes (as it always does), it will be worth it.
This is my school. This is your school. There are ways in which it is wonderful. There are ways in which it could be much better. Either way it goes, I. EARNED. MY. SPOT. So did you. Keep fighting for it.
Dominique Jones, Editor-in-Chief