Gathering around Tommy Trojan on Wednesday morning, hundreds of graduate students and professors rallied to oppose provisions in the House of Representatives’ Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Some held signs demonstrating their opposition, while others chanted “Kill this bill!” and “Fight on!” in Hahn Plaza.
The provisions the crowd opposed would raise taxes on graduate students by almost 400 percent, according to the Grad Tax Walkout website.
The Grad Tax Walkout, a national protest, was planned and organized by five USC graduate students: Hannah Khoddam, Nina Jhaveri, Marie Gillespie, Hannah Rasmussen and Miriam Rubenson. They are all clinical psychology students pursuing doctorate degrees.
Since the USC students put the plan into action, hundreds of students attending 50 universities spanning 32 states registered to participate. The proposed tax bill, which passed the House of Representatives two weeks ago with only Republican support, would change the current law that allows graduate students to receive free tuition without being taxed. The new bill, if signed into law, would reclassify free tuition as income, which can be taxed.
This prospect has left many graduate students, who often earn little income on top of receiving free tuition, worried about not being able to afford to continue their higher education.
“If this bill passes, I don’t know if I will continue my [doctorate degree] — and this is my dream,” said Mariel Bello, a first-generation college student studying in the clinical science program.
Bello ran a photo campaign table during the Grad Tax Walkout at Tommy Trojan on Wednesday. Bello sat behind a foldable table ,helping students, faculty and general passers-by fill out signs explaining why their tuition waiver was important.
The table was filled with write-in signs with examples of what graduate students do: provide free services to veterans, work to cure cancer and provide therapy to low-income children in the community.
“Ultimately, I’m here to provide an avenue for students to fight against this bill,” Bello said of the rally’s photo campaign, which helped gain social media traction for the movement.
Stanley Huey, an associate professor of psychology and American studies and ethnicity, was one of the first speakers to kick off the event. He spoke to the crowd about his own experience as a graduate student.
“I got a very modest stipend because the government was investing in me,” Huey said. “Debates at the time were how you opened up access, how you increased opportunities for students to get a good education. But the House bill is the inverse of that.”
Following Huey, her adviser, Gillespie marched up to the steps of Tommy Trojan with a bullhorn and instructed protesters to pull out their cell phones. Several hundred protesters pulled phones out of pockets and backpacks, as she instructed everyone to take a picture or video of the event.
“I need you to post [that] on social media,” Gillespie said. “Do it loudly, do it proudly. We are higher education and we will not be taken away from America!”
Gillespie encouraged rally participants to approach the surrounding tables, which were organized around different themes to help individuals get involved.
One table hosted a phone bank and laid out step-by-step instructions about how to call state senators and representatives, as well as a word-for-word script on what to say.
Graduate students also circled the crowd with clipboards and laptops, aiming to get signatures on appropriate petitions.
“I think this is hopefully the beginning of something,” Lyden said of the event. “Graduate students across the nation, I think, are a great group. If we can come together to fight something so absurd, we should keep going.”