NEW YORK -- Wednesday evening, three college students descended on lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park with the hope of unfurling their sleeping bags and staying the night.
All three men mentioned the rising cost of higher education as their main motivation for leaving the comfort of their own beds to instead pass the rainy night in a show of solidarity with fellow Occupy Wall Street protesters.
"Given everything that's been going on here, I decided there were bigger things at stake," said Jorge Javier, 22, who majored in history and political science at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York system, before dropping out two weeks ago. He lives in the Bronx. "I decided to leave it all behind. I decided to drop out in solidarity with this movement."
Citing increasing amounts of student loan debt and the skyrocketing cost of tuition, many college students have gravitated toward the Occupy Wall Street movement. Nationwide, an estimated 150 campuses have staged formal protests and walkouts -- with additional teach-ins planned for the middle of next week.
For students attending public colleges, fears over financing education are particularly acute. A study released yesterday by the College Board found that average costs at four-year public universities have more than tripled over the past three decades. Further, average tuition rates have increased by 8.3 percent just in the last year alone.
Public college students living in New York -- a city that contains a number of public institutions -- are personally flocking to Zuccotti Park to make their demands known and their voices heard.
Another student in the group, James Duarte, scoured the overcrowded park for a place to sleep.
Nearly a month ago, Duarte joined the movement after tiring of the fight to stay afloat. He's a 20-year-old junior at the City University of New York.
"Every step I take to try and educate myself in this country is a constant struggle. I just wanted to be educated. It shouldn't be this difficult," said Duarte, a Bronx native.
His mother emigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in order to make a better life for her family. As her first child, Duarte said he carries the weight of her expectations on his young shoulders.
"I need to be the first college-educated person in my family and we're in this time of crisis," Duarte said. He didn't qualify for federal loans and his mother and stepfather both recently lost their jobs, leaving him scrambling.
Currently, Duarte works part-time and lives paycheck to paycheck. He wonders: "Where's the relief?"
As a Latino, Duarte said he sees surprisingly little diversity among his fellow Occupy Wall Street protesters. Lately, he dreams of harnessing the momentum from Zuccotti Park and expanding it northward -- all the way to the Bronx.
"For the first time, we can talk about an Arab spring, a European summer and an American autumn," Duarte said, his enthusiasm is undiminished despite the threat of cooler temperatures. "We are at the forefront of something. We are at the beginning."
While Duarte and Javier are regulars who visit the park routinely, their friend Brian Aquino sat looking wide-eyed, simply trying to take it all in.
Aquino, 22, who is a sophomore at New York City College of Technology, a CUNY school, paid his first visit to Occupy Wall Street on Wednesday night. Come graduation day, he faces more than $40,000 in student loans.
Later in the night, all three men participated in a march that snaked through lower Manhattan protesting recent acts of police brutality in Oakland, Calif.
Javier said he personally travels to Zuccotti Park to interact with like-minded people and gain inspiration.
Javier's mother moved to New York from the Dominican Republic when she was pregnant with him. While his stepfather is currently unemployed, his mother is a city employee and local grassroots leader who previously ran for elected office in the Bronx.
Since both of his parents have college degrees, Javier's recent decision to drop out has come as quite a shock. Many of his professors are similarly pleading that he reconsider.
"It's been a big issue, to reject this standard that we've all been aspiring toward," said Javier, who took out about $15,000 in student loans to finance his degree. "In comparison to the $200,000 some people are taking out maybe it doesn't sound like much. But if you don't have a way to pay for it, you don't have a way to pay for it. Our system, it is faltering."
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste. Learn more