Putting a Value on Free Education

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Last December, I had a chance to meet with Jamshed Bharucha, the new President of Cooper Union in his office with other Cooper Union Alumni.  During this meeting, I asked to what extent the tuition model has been developed. “On the question of how much tuition would be charged, how many would have to pay and how much of it they would have to pay, we’ve hired a consultant,” Bharucha said. “It’s a specialty now. It’s called enrollment management. We’ve hired one of the top enrollment management firms. They will do the market research.”

He reiterated that “any student that merits a Cooper Union education should not be denied one because of lack of affordability…but for those who can afford to pay—”

“Has that been defined?” I interjected, “for those who can afford to pay.”

“No it hasn’t been defined,” Bharucha said. “It is a consideration. It has to be costed out.”

While these items are costed out, and the ‘market research’ is performed, it is equally important to be able to articulate the value of a free education.

Last fall, Litia Perta, wrote a wonderful article in The Brooklyn Rail, called “Why Cooper Union Matters. ”  It  inspired many of us to think about our own Cooper experiences in a larger context.   The following is a personal reflection on my Cooper Union education that has been posted on the Friends of Cooper Union Testimonials Page:

When I was accepted to Cooper Union, a local newspaper wrote a story on me saying that I was following in the footsteps of my paternal grandfather, a civil engineer who was a follower of Gandhi. I never met my grandfather, who passed away long before I was born, and knew as much about him then as I did Peter Cooper, which is to say not very much. I learned that both men born on different continents in different eras, one an industrialist, one devoted to the revitalization of the rural villages, shared certain things, most notably a commitment to equity, hard work, the upliftment of the social classes and empowerment of women.

My grandfather was an engineer who worked for the British in Burma, in the 1930s, when he had a radical shift in thought and gave up all worldly possessions and moved his family back to Southern India to join the Freedom Movement. In his newspaper, Young India, Gandhi was calling for an army of volunteers to go to the villages and teach sanitation and hygiene. My grandfather responded to this call. As an engineer and water diviner (a coupling of art and science), he developed wells and water supply in the villages surrounding a rural town called Kallakurichi. At the time, many of the poor and ‘untouchables’ had been denied access to share wells and public water supply.

My grandfather home schooled his thirteen children to be self-reliant and wanted his eight daughters to be financially independent and educated. He was against having a dowry and believed women should have the right of inheritance. He wanted his children to earn their way on their own merit, not by who their family was. He said if they grew up to be good citizens, then people should ask who raised them. To my father, who devoted his life to social work, my acceptance at Cooper Union represented several things. It was both the fulfillment of the American Dream, and a continuation of a family legacy of social responsibility.

I often said that ‘I came to Cooper Union because it was free, but that is not why I stayed.’ It was the culture created by a free education. Although tuition was free, I would hesitate to call it a “free ride.” Ride implies a sense of ease. Cooper Union was an opportunity for self-propulsion. We learned to swim. We had no pool.

For three years, I shared a one-bedroom apartment with two other girls a block away from school. I slept in a tiny loft storage space that was six feet wide by seven feet long by four feet high. It was big enough to fit a mattress and box spring and had a platform where I could put my computer. I sat on the edge of my mattress and worked on problem sets by hand or tinkered with Excel spreadsheets until the wee hours of the morning, usually on the phone with one of my classmates, figuring things out together. Sometimes we’d be working on different projects, and we’d stay on the phone together, in silence, comforted in the fact that we were not alone.

At Cooper, I was no longer the only one in my class with a long strange name. Many of my classmates were immigrants or first generation American, like me. Cooper Union was a place where we could celebrate our own and each other’s cultures, and every year, we’d put on an annual culture show in the Great Hall. I had the honor of dancing bhangra, and dandia ras on that famous stage, and also participated in a Filipino candle dance and the Chinese fashion show. One of the things I deeply valued about Cooper Union was this diversity. As a New York Times article from last November noted, Cooper Union has “ a student body that, for an elite college, is unusually diverse, ethnically and economically. Fewer than half of Cooper Union’s students are white, and almost two-thirds attended public high schools.”

During my sophomore year at Cooper, we finally had enough interest to start a women’s tennis team. (Previously the few women tennis players would play on the men’s team). With no facilities of our own, we played early morning on the East River, before the courts filled up, and before our classes in differential equations. We had one match that year against Pratt, which we won. Associate Dean Steve Baker, head of athletics, created shirts for us: “Women’s Tennis at Cooper Union, Undefeated since 1859.”

I was an officer in our student chapter of Society for Women Engineers. The national organization had its roots in a meeting of female students from various schools at Cooper Union’s Green Camp. The Second Convention of the Society was held in Green Camp in 1950. Panels of discussion then included “Open Your Own Door to an Engineering Career” and an address called “Being a Woman as well as an Engineer.”

When I graduated Cooper, I received a scholarship for a master’s degree program in geotechnical engineering at UC Berkeley. In August 1999, a major earthquake had just devastated Turkey. On my first day of classes, the first thing my professor said was that Turkey smelled “like 40,000 dead people,” further noting that “engineers who know that smell do their work a lot differently than those who don’t.” It was this sense of social responsibility that led me to pursue engineering, but also to leave it from time to time.

My grandfather quit engineering, to pursue social justice, but it was his water engineering skills that led into activism. It was the same for me. Soon after I started my first job in San Francisco as an engineer, I applied to volunteer at a primate sanctuary in Cameroon, but it was my engineering background that caught the sanctuary’s interest. At that time, they had to travel 20 miles to the nearest tap to fill up on water. They had unsuccessfully drilled two wells. They asked me “Where is the water table?” Thousands of miles away, I couldn’t possibly know, but I asked a series of questions. Where is the nearest river? What is the topography? How deep were the wells that were dug? What soils did they find? What are the seasonal rainfall patterns?

I prepared much like the former Cooper student I was. I interviewed staff and former volunteers about site descriptions. I looked up geology maps of Cameroon in the library. I compiled these correspondences and maps and tidbits in a big white binder. I was not schooled in small-scale survival solutions, so I tried to school myself. I brushed up on groundwater hydrology, rainwater collection and tropical residual soils. I took French lessons with grand plans for fluency but arrived in Cameroon, with only my “What to (not) order in a Paris Café” French and the big white binder.

There were things the binder did not prepare me for. In Cameroon, I was confronted with so many injustices—wealth trickling out of the region on logging trucks and through oil pipelines while children and adults were dying around me. There was a world of disparity that I was trying to reconcile, perhaps like the India my grandfather had hoped to change. There were things engineering alone could not fix. I wondered if my grandfather and his divining rod asked the same question. What if this wasn’t enough? My big white binder served as reminder, a document of what I knew when I discovered what I didn’t.

The next few years, I continued to educate myself in global social and environmental issues. A Cooper education freed me from debt, and allowed me the freedom to pursue purpose driven, not profit driven endeavors. I’ve returned to the Great Hall many times. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, speak on the intersections of environmental sustainability, democracy and peace, the Indian Environmentalist Vandana Shiva discuss the concept of earth democracy. These were women who incorporated their scientific backgrounds with social justice. Union, to me, was not only about art and science, but about making the connections between the technical, the political and the social. Cooper Union, I realized, provided me with the financial and intellectual freedom to explore these connections long after I had left its halls.

For more information about the current situation facing  Cooper Union: visit the  Friends of Cooper Union website.  For additional posts on Cooper Union click here.

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