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AUSTIN, Texas – South Texas College took a record number of students – 31 – to Austin on Tuesday to push their top four legislative agenda items during Community College Day at the state Capitol.

The top four issues for this session are opposition to handguns on campus, support for in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, support for lifting the cap on the number of bachelor degrees STC can offer, and support for more funding for dual enrollment programs.

The students, along with faculty and staff, boarded a bus that left McAllen at 3 a.m. and did not arrive back home until 10 p.m.

“It’s going to be a long day but it is well worth it,” said Claudio Alvarez of Donna. Alvarez is studying engineering at the Pecan Campus in McAllen. “It is my first visit to the Capitol. It is a beautiful building. I am on the Student Government Association so I really wanted to see how the Legislature works. It has been an amazing day. The rally this morning was very motivational. It was amazing, I am speechless.”

Alvarez said that for him the top issue of the session is the fight to maintain in-state tuition for undocumented students. “In the Rio Grande Valley this is a very big issue. If the bill passes and they do away with in-state tuition for immigrants, there are going to be lot of brilliant-minded students in the Valley that will not be able to continue their education. They will not be able to afford an out-of-state tuition rate.”

Thousands of students from community colleges around Texas participated in Community College Day, along with college presidents, faculty and staff. In the morning they braved heavy rain to hold a rally on the south steps of the Capitol and in the afternoon split into small groups to visit the offices of state senators and representatives.

Steven Weinreich of Weslaco is studying network administration and computers at the STC technology campus in south McAllen. It was his first visit to the state Capitol. “For me the top issue is hand guns on campus. We really do not need handguns on campus. It seems a little too extreme. Open carry is okay but not on campus. I would not feel comfortable in class knowing somebody could have a gun or does have a gun,” Weinreich said.

Asked if allowing hand guns on campus would deter him from continuing with his education, Weinreich said: “Perhaps. It would lead to more people owning guns.”

Juan Villegas of Palmview is studying Mexican American Studies at the Pecan Campus in McAllen. He said it was his third visit to the state Capitol and the second time he has participated in Community College Day. “I was very impressed with the rally. One speaker spoke about the importance of continuing your education. It was very motivational,” Villegas said.

Villegas said his top issues for the legislative session are making sure the ban on hand guns on campus stays in place and making sure undocumented students continue to access higher education at the in-state tuition rate.

“You do not need a gun to get an education,” Villegas said, in his dismissal of legislation to allow concealed and/or the open carry of handguns on college and university campuses. “When a police officer is called to the campus and they see everybody shooting around they will wonder, who is the original shooter? Students are going to be a lot more scared. A campus should be a place where you feel safe and where you should be able to learn without fear.”

On the subject of in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, Villegas said: “If an undocumented student gets a high school diploma and wants to continue his or her education, they should pay the same rate as I do. Just because I am documented and they are not, this should not make a difference. I understand they do not have their papers and were not born here. But, they are doing things right, they are not here messing around. They are studying. They are trying to make a difference with their lives and the lives of their families. They are not causing trouble.”

Kathryn Salazar said the issue she most wanted to tell legislators about is the need to remove the cap on the number of Bachelor programs a community college can offer. At present, there is a statutory cap that limits STC to offering no more than five Bachelor of Applied Technology and Bachelor of Applied Science degrees.

Salazar will be part of the first cohort to graduate from STC’s new Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Organizational Leadership. “There should not be a limit on the number of Bachelor degree programs a community college can offer. There should be endless opportunity,” Salazar said. “If this cap is not lifted South Texas College will not be able to offer any more Bachelor degree programs. The cap eliminates a lot of opportunity for students in the Valley.”

It was Salazar’s first visit to the state Capitol. “It is an incredible experience,” she said.

In an STC brochure titled “Changing Lives, Changing Communities” that students left with legislators, STC President Shirley Reed is quoted as saying: “The economic future of South Texas, to a great extent, will be influenced by our ability to increase the educational level and competitive workforce skills of all residents of Hidalgo and Starr counties.”

More than 70 percent of STC students are the first in their families to attend college. More than 95 percent are Hispanic and more than 75 percent – excluding dual enrollment students – take advantage of some form of financial aid.

A group of five STC students visited state Rep. Sergio Muñoz of Mission in his Capitol office. Muñoz told the Rio Grande Guardian that he backed all the legislative agenda items presented by STC students. “I was very impressed with how articulate and passionate the students were. They are a credit to the Rio Grande Valley,” Muñoz said.