At the traditional age to first enter into college, Cathrine Zerfing, a current freshman in the college of natural science and mathematics, was turned away from her chosen university two weeks before the start of the semester due to her lack of funds. 

She took a deep breath before speaking in front of the crowd Wednesday at a rally for Pennsylvania Promise.

Zerfing said when she was younger, she was homeless, and she would be lucky when she had someone’s couch to sleep on.

At 11 years old, she was sitting in Reid Park in Tucson, Ariz., when she heard a woman call to her children that it was time to go home.

“I wished more than anything that my mom could say that to me,” Zerfing said, choking back tears. “And she couldn’t. So I thought to myself that it was OK because I would be an adult, and I would find my own home. And this thought, that was supposed to comfort me, rose more questions.”

She said she tried to “plot [her] way out of poverty” while listening to a Janet Jackson album and reading a book on Tutankhamen, both of which her mother bought her from a thrift shop since she could not rent from a library. She then vowed to get an education no matter what.

What started with her being “initially afraid,” led to enthusiastic “educate the state” chants that were echoed by the audience. 

Sen. Vincent J. Hughes will introduce the Pa. Promise Act in the near future, according to an April 2 memorandum.

The legislation will “improve college access and affordability for Pennsylvania students,” the memo said. 

According to the Pa. Promise website, the act will:

  • cover two years of tuition and fees for any recent high school graduate enrolled full-time at one of the Commonwealth’s 14 public community colleges
  • cover four years of tuition and fees for any recent high school graduate with a family income less than or equal to $110,000 per year accepted into one of the 14 universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education
  • provide four years of tuition and fees not to exceed the State System tuition rate, depending on family income, for students accepted into a state-related university
  • finance the expansion of grant assistance to adults seeking in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials, as well as college credit

Three other students spoke at the rally, sharing their personal stories and reasons for supporting the legislation.

Kirsten Piatak (graduate, criminology) spoke on behalf of other students “who might not otherwise have their voices heard today.” She wanted those listening to support Pa. Promise as a way to encourage students’ dreams.

Another student, Kennedy Spencer (sophomore, pre-physical therapy and nutrition), shared a more personal account. 

She choked up as she spoke about her mother, a first-generation college student who is still paying off her student debt at 47 years old. 

Her mother has eight siblings. And when her brother developed a heart disease, all the family funds went into medical bills and eventually funeral bills when her brother died at age 4, Spencer said.

“My mother is undoubtedly the strongest person I know,” Spencer said, fighting tears. 

The Penn’s managing editor, Alexandria Mansfield (senior, journalism and public relations), talked about the struggles many students face once they are stuck with the thousands of dollars tacked onto their student loan bills. 

“I know my school work has suffered from the distraction of my expenses on multiple occasions,” Mansfield said. “I know other students who were forced to leave this university when the 2016 tuition change caused out-of-state costs to become unreasonable.”

In fall 2016, IUP changed to a per-credit tuition model. Before that, students could take 12 credits for the same price as taking 17 credits. Now, it is much more. 

For the 2017-18 school year, an in-state undergraduate tuition cost $5,030.40 for 12 credits and $6,672.90 for 17 credits. That is not accounting for expenses and fees other than classes. 

Aside from IUP, Pa. Promise rallies have taken place at West Chester University and will take place at Lock Haven University.

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