President Oballa spoke in front of Board of Trustee members on Tuesday, October 15th to share his personal experience and encourage board members to bring students to the table as they move forward in plans for Equity 2030. 

"Until you are willing to acknowledge your own privilege and bias and start looking at these issues from a place of empathy, then there is no way that the system is going to bring about the real change that student needs."

Students have been consistently told that what they are doing is not enough, their parents are not doing enough, or they spend too much money on their iPhones, so college should be affordable as long as you budget properly. We have seen firsthand that this is not the case - students work hard in school while juggling families, a job (sometimes two), and life. 

Read Oballa's full testimony below:

Chair Cowles, members of the Board of Trustees, Chancellor Malhotra, my name is Oballa Oballa and I am the president of LeadMN. At LeadMN it is my job to represent the voices of 180,000 community college students that have diverse identities from all across the state, to different social-economic backgrounds, to veterans, to the LGBTQIA community, to students of all ability levels, and to students of color and students like me.

I spent many years of my life in a Kenyan Refugee Camp after fleeing my homeland Gambella, Ethiopia. Those years of my life have shaped who I am, but they don’t define me. I came to America in search of a better education and a better life.At the start of one semester I remember withdrawing all of my money from my savings account to pay for my textbooks. My savings was $1080. After paying for my books, I was left with $1.50 only. From there I went to the cafeteria to get some french fries and some chicken nuggets with the change that was left. To my surprise, they cost $2.50 cents and I only had a dollar fifty in my pocket.

I looked up and cried inside as I walked away from the line. Being food insecure makes me feel bad about myself because it's painful. I feel like I cannot succeed and that makes me more worried about my future. It makes me feel unworthy because I don’t have the energy to do things like my homework. My story is similar to many shared with
me by students from across the state.

It is experiences like this that have led me to be a passionate advocate for addressing food insecurity of college students. A survey from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University found that 2 in 5 Minnesota community college students experienced food insecurity in the prior 30 days.

My friend Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University said that, "The new economics of college are creating poverty. Hunger and homelessness are holding students back. Education finance must be rethought so students aren't punished for pursuing education."

As you lay out the vision for equity 2030, I encourage you to bring an equity and student-focused lens to the conversation. In the past, student leaders haven’t felt listened to by the board and as recently as June during the tuition increase conversation where three student trustees and the two statewide student associations respectfully raised serious questions and shared with you facts about how the high cost of college is creating a
debt-sentence for students.

Instead, we were told that our Iphones cost more than the tuition increase, or that our parents should do more to support our education, this type of shaming of students is unfair. Especially when the two students testifying don’t get any assistance from families, but actually support their families financially. The board has a responsibility to listen to student voices now more than ever as we move forward with this new vision on

As leaders in the system and advocates of closing this pervasive achievement gap, it is paramount that the board of trustees operate from a lens of inclusivity and not give into false notions of cultural differences regarding the importance of educational attainment.

Instead, the trustees should exercise understanding and recognizing the systems at play which continue to hinder educational parity. Change begins with you. Instead of shaming or patronizing students, I would challenge you to not just hear us, but actually listen to us. We have asked to meet with Board members on numerous occasions to only be told that our opinions should be filtered through the Chancellor. I invite any of you to shadow me for a day to understand the real challenges that we face.

Until you are willing to acknowledge your own privilege and bias and start looking at these issues from a place of empathy, then there is no way that the system is going to bring about the real change that student needs.