Washtenaw County students work with national organization to fight for free, accessible college

Like so many of their peers, Judah Orli Perillo and Latitude Brown have their own stories of the financial hurdles required to receive a post-secondary education in the United States.

Brown and Perillo are student fellows with Rise – an advocacy organization that trains and hires community college and university students to organize campaigns with the goal of making college free and accessible for all.

“I think I left college with about $85,000 or $86,000 in student debt,” says Perillo, who graduated from the University of Michigan in 2017.

“I have about $61,000 left,” he adds. “On a personal level that’s just horrific. I am a salaried employee and I felt the need to get a second, hourly job to supplement my income. I have no savings whatsoever.”

Brown, too, was faced with financial hardship when attempting to get a college degree.

“I was going to community college, and my dad was diagnosed with stage four cancer, which was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma,” they say. “There was no money for me to go to college. It was either go to college or pay my dad's medical bills. Obviously, I picked my dad's medical bills.” 

“I wasn’t able to go back to college until recently,” Brown adds. “You should not have to choose between an education and medical bills."

Both are now back in school – a prerequisite for all of Rise’s student fellows. Perillo is completing additional computer programming classes at Washtenaw Community College, while Brown is completing a bachelor’s degree at Eastern Michigan University.

Their current focus is a letter-writing campaign focused on President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better Act. Legislation that would have provided free community college was recently cut from the bill, but Rise is hoping that local grassroots movements could convince legislators to restore it. In addition to on-campus advocacy and “a lot of emailing,” says Perillo, the two recently partnered with Ann Arbor’s Booksweet bookstore to hold a storytelling and letter-writing night where they discussed the importance of equitable and accessible education.

Rise fellows were also heavily involved in the successful passage of the Michigan Reconnect program, which grants free community college to all Michigan residents 25 and older, in 2019. Perillo and Brown say that, should Rise's efforts on the Build Back Better Act fail, an expansion of the Reconnect program to include those under 25 years old would be one of their new targets. 

“Another thing that Rise does focus on is students’ basic needs access, which is also a critical thing,” Perillo says. “It doesn't really matter that much if you are going to college for free or very little if you're struggling to ... eat good food or you know you're living in your car. So just on a personal level, those basic things you need to live need to be provided as well.”

“I just hope that education can be free and widely available,” he adds. “I mean, the universities certainly have the endowments big enough to accommodate. They just don't.”

Sabine Bickford Brown is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at sabinebickfordbrown@gmail.com. 

Judah Orli Perillo and Latitude Brown by Truly Render. Group photo by Judah Orli Perillo.
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