As Harriet Knight-Everette set out from Madison to Washington, D.C., to witness the inauguration of the next president of the United States, she reflected on how far her nation had come.
“Having lived through some of the Jim Crow era, I’ve been in segregated movie theaters, I’ve been called bad names. … It’s something that affects you for your entire life, and it’s something that I never thought I’d see change in my lifetime,” she said.
She has worked on the Obama campaign since he decided to run and sees his inauguration as a milestone for the country.
“It’s such an inspiration that things possibly can change. And I have great hope that as each successive generation comes, all that racism and prejudice may be eliminated,” Knight-Everette said. “Barack may be a great catalyst for that.”
The 55-year-old administrative assistant said she is also making the trip for her elderly father, Walter Knight, who was the first African-American elected to the City Council of Beloit.
Knight-Everette said her father’s excitement might even surpass her own that an African-American will be elevated to the nation’s highest office.
“He’s just a phenomenal man to me. I know he can’t solve all our problems, I know he has some challenges ahead of him,” she said of Obama. “I now have a level of hope. I may need a lot more than that, but it’s a start.”
Democrats and Republicans alike will look on from back in Madison, some critical of the plans the Obama administration plans to enact.
With the new president facing a divided nation, war and economic uncertainty, one thing is certain of both sides — all eyes are on Obama.
Looking Forward: Affording College
With the start of a new administration, both college students and the Wisconsin officials who sit on the Assembly’s Colleges and Universities Committee have paid special attention to Obama’s plans for higher education.
During the campaign, Obama proposed the “American Opportunity Tax Credit,” which would make the first $4,000 of college tuition free for families and cover about two thirds of tuition at the average public university in return for 100 hours of community service by the student.
Colleges and Universities Committee Chair Rep. Kim Hixson, D-Whitewater, called the measure a “huge win-win.”
Hixson noted the importance of raising the number of adults in Wisconsin who are college-educated and added it would be good for students to, in some sense, “earn” the aid they receive.
“You look at all the different number of students at a university who might do that, if they’re all doing 100 hours of community service, it would really add up,” Hixson said. “It is good for students to diversify their backgrounds and expose themselves to situations they wouldn’t normally expose themselves to.”
However, Mike Mikalsen, spokesperson for former Colleges and Universities Committee chair Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, questioned the likelihood of the proposal becoming policy.
“I think Rep. Nass has looked at it from what was promised to what will be reality,” Mikalsen said. “The campaign promises of massive new funding for higher education are not going to materialize with the current economic situation.”
Mikalsen said the proposal came with too many “strings” attached and that the community service requirement might disenfranchise some students.
He also said students were more interested in immediate cash in the form of better rates for student loans or increased federal financial aid, rather than a tax credit after the fact.
“The first thing you have to do is hold students and middle-class families harmless by capping at a reasonable rate how much tuition can go up every year,” Mikalsen added.
During the campaign, Obama also proposed streamlining the process to apply for financial aid by eliminating the current paperwork and adding a box for families to check on tax forms that would serve the same purpose.
“It certainly seems like a good idea,” Hixson said of the proposal. “It’s one less form to fill out, and as the information we fill out on our tax forms is about all the information the financial aid information form needs.”
However, Mikalsen said Nass was wary of that idea.
“The problem can be for many families is you can hide wealth from a tax form, but the federal financial aid form can weed out some who might have cash sitting on the side, so you have to be careful. The federal system needs to be reformed. The current system is way too complex,” Mikalsen said.