Urban Legend: Cail Casserly

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If Governor Pataki has his way, thousands of students in New York’s public university system could see their tuition bills rise by 37 percent next year. But they’re not taking the hit sitting down. More than 1,000 students of the city and state universities recently trudged to Albany as part of a 14-day, “No Tuition Hike” protest.

But only Cail Casserly walked the entire southern spoke of the hike–245 miles from Stony Brook, Long Island, arriving at the capitol on March 11 in time for the final rally. The 19-year-old Hunter College sophomore with tough feet transferred from Harvard University last semester, and she hasn’t looked back since. Harvard just didn’t suit her, she says. The activist life she has now–and her Brooklyn apartment–is a better fit.

“Besides,” Casserly adds, “I knew that Hunter is a really good school.”

The daughter of Amityville’s deputy mayor, Casserly says she can’t remember a time when politics wasn’t an important part of her life. “We were the weird kids in town,” Casserly says, noting that they were only allowed to watch PBS.

So when Pataki’s proposal to increase CUNY’s annual tuition from $3,200 to $4,400 threatened to yank many of her newfound friends at Hunter out of their classrooms, she knew she had to do something.

Though the state touts the fact that CUNY and SUNY tuition hasn’t increased since 1995, the New York Public Interest Research Group and other education advocates say students have borne a 128 percent increase in school fees for student groups, health care and computer use from an average of $435 in 1995 to $990 in 2002. Those fees, in addition to a one-third cut in Tuition Assistance Program grants, has led many students and families to worry “if they’ll be able to come back next year,” Casserly says.

Casserly walked to send a message to Albany that students are not apathetic–and not easily silenced. A supply van followed each day’s walkers–sometimes that meant Casserly alone–providing a place for a quick warm-up from icy winds. Thanks to press conferences at the end of each day’s walking, Casserly soon found herself in the spotlight, and as her journey progressed, students she met along the way went from merely supporting her to telling her how much she inspired them.

When she returned to Brooklyn from the hike, the first thing Casserly did was ask a friend to shave her head. That inspired her newest activist project, called “Shave Your Head for Peace,” a call for young people to shave their heads in support of pacifism and in protest of the war against Iraq.

“Cail is an activist in her heart,” says NYPIRG higher education coordinator Miriam Kramer. “She’s just starting off in the world, and she’s already on her way to a bright future.”

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