A Youth Response to SOTU

During this year's State of the Union, President Obama took the opportunity to address a range of issues from paid sick leave and equal pay to climate change and free community college. As usual, there were unlimited responses to the stances taken by the President, but perhaps the most underrated response came from the (arguably) most affected population: our youth.

Too often, the aspirations of this country's youth are effectively dismissed. We dream too big to be practical is the unstated truth of too many of our leaders. It implies that there is fundamental incompatibility between the big change we want to see and what's actually possible. But it's never been the way of big dreamers to listen to the cynics. We know that there is no shortage of energy and passion among us to accomplish big things, and we must hold on to that even in the face of those who want to cling to old ways.

President Obama addressed several youth issues, but as young people we have to make sure these policies are being developed with the interest of young people in mind and advocate for the issues that directly impact our lives.

On Education

Education was a huge issue going into the State of the Union, with students and educators alike hoping President Obama would take the opportunity to discuss public education reform. Instead of addressing federal standardized testing, the President opted to talk about the highlights of our current education system. The high school graduation rate has hit an all time high and with more Americans finishing college than ever before, it made sense for President Obama to discuss access to higher education and the steps he's taking to make college more affordable for students.

Leading up the State of the Union, there was a lot of buzz surrounding President Obama's plan for free community college. With this plan, students will have access to the first two years of community college for free as long as they attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA and make steady progress toward completing their program. This program potentially impacts 9 million students each year and saves the average full time community college student $3,800 year. We know that higher education leads to higher lifetime wages, and that parents who get an education tend to have children who do the same, so this proposal in general can help many low-income Americans take a great first step towards improving their circumstances.

Giving people free community college isn't the answer by itself though. It's true that community colleges have abysmal graduation rates and often lead to students graduating with degrees they can't really use in the marketplace. Community college is a great alternative to the first two years at a traditional university, yet only 15 percent of students choose this option. Part of the proposal includes requiring community colleges to improve these outcomes and have programs that are transferable to four-year institutions. This goes beyond making community college free, it's also about looking to increase the quality of education for these students. And giving them opportunities they might not have had access to before.

Although President Obama's focus on offering free community college gives students hope that further actions will be taken to lower the cost of higher education, it's important to note that 1 in 3 high school graduates will struggle with college readiness. High school graduation rates might be at an all time high, but there are still steps that must be taken to improve current education standards, and students have to be a part of making quality education a reality for U.S. students. Students have to be a part of the conversation surrounding education issues and building an equitable education system.

For students, education reform is personal to all of us. Because we're surrounded by these issues on a day-to-day basis. It's important for policy makers to acknowledge the voices of students when addressing the issues that directly impact our lives.

On Climate Change

Another hot topic (pun totally intended) at the State of the Union was climate change, with President Obama proclaiming "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change." When politicians talk about future generations, they're talking about us. And youth have long been active in calling for climate action.

We recognize the threat that climate change presents. It's past time to debate it's existence -- it's here, it's real and if we don't act now then by the time our children grown up we'll be telling stories about how different the planet used to be. Young people aren't responsible for the rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But, unfortunately, our generation will bear the weight of the actions taken (or likewise, no taken) by those who came before us. Yet, we're still hesitant to get involved in politics.

We didn't cause this, but in order to protect our future it is up to us to do our part to fix it. If you're reading this, you're no longer off the hook. If you're still sitting on the sidelines, if you've never gotten off of Twitter and organized in the real world, if you've never volunteered for that candidate who believes climate change is a major issue... then you're part of the problem. Most of the people in Washington are part of the status quo, and we know the worst polluters also have big pocketbooks to protect their interests. Power doesn't concede easily. But President Obama was right: there is no greater threat than climate change.

Obama said that the good people on Capitol Hill should focus less on the money race for negative ads, and focus instead on people just like you. They should be asking you to get engaged and get to work in the process. I don't think the people in attendance at his speech really want that. Half the room is excited about things that young people tend to think are pretty bad ideas: controlling women's bodies, proving climate change is a hoax and keeping a tax system that works best for those who already have a lot of money. Young people made up about 1/5 of the electorate in 2008 and 2012. Imagine if we kept coming out like that and worked on building on those numbers-entire campaign platforms would need to be rethought. Congress wouldn't just be thinking about their biggest donors anymore, they'd be worried that come next cycle you'd show up at the voting booth and end their career because they still hadn't acted on climate, or worked to make it so that the government wasn't profiting off of student loan debt. Young people can actually change the country, but it can only happen if they show up every election year, not just the "big ones". You can't keep sacrificing the issues you care about by staying home and letting the 36.4 percent who do show up for midterms elect an entire group of new Congressmen that won't act on climate because they aren't scientists.

Giving young people an active presence in our political system goes beyond showing up to vote. We have to work together to empower young people to run for office in their local communities. Change has to begin with us. When we have young people leading by example, it inspires other to do their part to contribute to our government system. It won't be easy, but young people have to demand a seat at the table. We're already leading in our communities through service projects and social movements. If we can harness that passion and energy and join together to change the policies that directly affect our lives, there's no telling what we can do. When President Obama ended his address, it was hard not to feel optimistic. Because he was right, a brighter future is ours to write. Young people everywhere should work to start this new chapter together, and we should start now.