NEW YORK -- As their classmates spent fall break putting finishing touches on fellowship and graduate school applications, a group of Oberlin College students voyaged to lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park armed with nothing but sleeping bags and a change of clothes.
Twelve Oberlin students will spend the next week huddled together to make their voices heard -- with many expressing frustration over increasing amounts of student debt and the rising cost of college, in addition to worry over pervasive rates of joblessness among their peers.
These concerns have led college students to be highly-represented in the Occupy movement, with an estimated 150 campuses nationwide staging several protests, walk-outs or sit-ins to educate others about the issues disproportionately impacting fellow students.
"We go to Oberlin College, one of most expensive schools in the country," said Daniel Rosenfeld, a 21-year-old senior. Including room and board, one year at Oberlin costs more than $50,000.
"Did we all just spend $200,000 for a piece of paper?" asked Rosenfeld, who started college at the beginning of the economic collapse and remains highly skeptical that his chances for finding a decent job will necessarily improve come graduation day. "And even with these degrees, our parents are still going to need to support us through an endless series of unpaid internships."
Rosenfeld's father is a communications consultant; his mother is a teacher. While Rosenfeld's parents largely picked up the tab for his college education -- save about $15,000 in student loans that he's responsible for paying back -- many of his classmates are staring down a far less certain future.
Hillary Ezcurra, a 19-year-old sophomore, is the lone woman among the Oberlin contingent sleeping overnight in Zuccotti Park. Ezcurra's mother recently lost her job and now faces the threat of foreclosure on her home in Sarasota, Fla.
"It's not even a matter of people working hard anymore," said Ezcurra, who plans to take a year off from school to try and get her finances in order. "I've seen how this system hurts so many people, even the people who believed that if you worked hard and followed the rules, that it would all work out."
For many of the Oberlin students, involvement with Occupy Wall Street marks their first participation in a formal protest.
While Rosenfeld participated in a walkout against the Iraq War during high school, he said the general vibe in Zuccotti Park fills him not only with sixties nostalgia but a reminder of the hopefulness that he and his classmates shared back in 2008.
"Everyone was so happy and hopeful and it really felt like youth and minorities and groups that don't normally vote and whose voices aren't normally heard were finally recognized," said Rosenfeld, recalling President Barack Obama's victory.
His friend, Max Zahn, echoed a similar sentiment.
"We were so enamored with Barack Obama because he really seemed to have an awareness of the issues that matter," said Zahn, a 22-year-old senior. "So when you finally get a dude who has that awareness and is sharp and is saying all the right things, it was really disillusioning for a lot of us when he didn't deliver on those promises."
Zahn, an English major, grew up in an upper-middle-class home in San Diego, Calif. His father is a lawyer and his mother worked as pediatrician. Zahn described his parents as "flaming liberals" who primarily expressed concern that he stay warm and well-fed while living outdoors for the rest of the week.
While Zahn's parent's footed the bill for college, he doesn't see his conviction to the movement's message of abolishing inequality as any less strong. Last month, Zahn organized a 21-student caravan from Oberlin, Ohio to New York for the inaugural Occupy Wall Street protest on Sept. 17.
"When we left here that Sunday, it was pretty dinky, with maybe 80 people in the park," recalled Zahn. "I was honestly surprised to see it growing and building and popping up everywhere."
Come Sunday, Zahn will pack up his belongings in order to make it back in time for Monday's classes. "There was absolutely no question in my mind about how I would spend fall break," he said.
Despite his friend's optimism about Occupy Wall Street's continued momentum, Rosenfeld was far less positive when reflecting on his own future.
Rosenfeld, a history and political science major, is applying for a Fulbright to teach English as a second language in Colombia.
Should that fall through, Rosenfeld is far less sanguine about what lies ahead.
"We're about to graduate from a ridiculously expensive liberal arts college and people aren't even talking about getting jobs they're so desperate," said Rosenfeld. "I see most of us moving back in with our parents, at least in the short term -- and possibly for a lot longer than I can even wrap my mind around."
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