Two U.S. senators talked yesterday at City College about broadening the federal student loan program, about the importance of staying in school and about persevering in life.
"Anyone in this room can be anything he or she wants to be," said Sen. Bill Bradley, the New Jersey Democrat who was appearing at a town meeting with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who is running for re-election.
In two years, college loan programs could be more generous and more accessible if proposals now before Congress become law, Mr. Bradley said.
Branddi Jackson, a City College junior, heard Mr. Bradley talk about goals, but Branddi was thinking about survival. Random gunfire on city streets and the recent shootings of two city police officers were on her mind. "I have little cousins who are 5 years old. You can't let them go outside and play or anything. I don't know what will be left for them when they get to be my age. We might not even have a world," she said.
After a weekend of hearing and seeing some things approaching the worst a city can produce, the speakers, the teachers and the city school superintendent, Dr. Walter G. Amprey, seemed to find something uplifting in the way Branddi and about 50 other students asked challenging questions in Classroom 111.
If students are the future, as adults like to say, why does the state cut the education budget? That is what 15-year-old Branddi wanted to know. "It just doesn't make good sense," said Branddi.
Surely, she said, national leaders erred when they spent vast sums in a war with Iraq. "We gave that man the bombs," she said, referring to the United States' earlier relationship with Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, "and now we want to go and take them away." Money to make war could be spent on people, on education, she said.
"We're better at bombs than at books," Ms. Mikulski said.
She told Branddi that she and Mr. Bradley weren't prepared to address this state's budget problems. But they did have ideas about community service as a way of paying back college loans and about developing "habits of the heart."
When a student said that her brother had been unable to stay at Cornell University because their family was middle class -- with income above the ceilings for loans and aid -- Mr. Bradley said that his proposals for more flexible guidelines are intended to solve such problems.
Curtis Cooper, a 17-year-old junior, wondered if the senators were spending enough time thinking about less fortunate students in cities such as Baltimore. "You're talking about programs for kids who are going to college, but kids in some city elementary schools don't have the opportunity to grow," Curtis said.
Ms. Mikulski agreed. "The quality of the education should not depend on the income of a neighborhood," she said. A broader Head Start program, she said, is definitely needed to give youngsters a better start, to identify learning difficulties and to solve hearing or vision problems if they exist.
Dr. Amprey thanked Curtis for his observation. The superintendent had arrived at the meeting after a morning of discussions with other Baltimore officials on how to soothe the nerves of a jittery city. His own spirits seemed to be buoyed by the lively discussion -- led, in part, by the students. "You've demonstrated that you're not just interested in your own future," he said.
"You probably will be successful. You'll make it. You know what to do to make the difference. But others will have to find a way. We've got to do something for our city, make it a better place to live, a safer place," he said.