Gabe Pendas decked a guy that cool March evening seven years ago. Fractured his jaw. It was in front of the Starbucks on Kendall Drive, not far from Jamba Juice. "We had a beef. He provoked it, and he lost," Pendas says. "Two or three punches and he went down."
The hard-partying high school dropout with a white-hot temper vowed to change. This past July he was elected president of the United States Student Association, the nation's oldest and largest student advocacy group. Almost immediately he scored a stunning victory — nudging Congress September 7 to snatch $21 billion from banks and give it to college students.
Now it's time for the 25-year-old Pendas to turn his brawler's attention to Florida.
"I don't understand why lawmakers think it is okay to not fund higher education in the state," he says. "They're shifting the cost to you and me. That's absurd."
When you consider the Sunshine State's higher ed morass, Pendas's story is a revelation. Born in Queens in 1982 to Cuban émigré parents, he moved to Miami at age two. His parents divorced when he was 10 years old. In the years that followed, his mother, Carmen, was sometimes ill and unemployed. Money was tight.
A big kid, six feet three inches tall and 220 pounds, Gabe fell in with the wrong crowd during high school. He first attended G. Holmes Braddock in Kendall, "but then my mom felt it would be better if I didn't go there anymore. I hung out with the wrong crowd." He flunked every class his freshman year. Then he transferred to Sunset Senior High, where he would often play hooky to swill beer at Coconut Grove's now-defunct Hungry Sailor.
He had a passion for punk rock. Alana Rodriguez, a friend, recalls, "We'd always go to concerts, and he'd be right in the middle of the mosh pit, dancing all crazy ... running around, bumping into people. He has a very commanding presence ... not just because of his size. He's pretty intense."
Then, at age 17, Gabe dropped out. He tried plumbing, selling toys, working as a host at IHOP — "a shitty job," he says. Finally Carmen coaxed him into attending an alternative program in Coral Gables called the Academy for Community Education (ACE), where an ambitious then-28-year-old teacher named Kelly Felipe began Gabe's resurrection. "He's a genius, brilliant," Felipe says. "But he had an anger problem."
Something clicked the day Felipe introduced Shakespeare's Hamlet. "Gabe lit up. He understood something about himself — the balance of passion versus reason. He got it like nobody's business."
Gabe spent two years at ACE, a program that has suffered budget cuts (which she says is okay "because it's not about the money, man, it's about the kids"). Next, under a program called CARE — the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement — he visited Florida State University in Tallahassee for two weeks.
At age 18, Gabe earned his GED and began studying at Miami Dade College. After eight months in the honors program, he applied to FSU and was accepted. Then came the punch and a run-in with the law. It ended when he completed community service and prosecutors dropped charges.
Like many FSU classmates, he took out loans for supplies and living expenses. He majored in physics and helped support his family by working 20 hours a week. He rocketed to statewide fame in April 2006 after being elected president of the student senate and leading rabble-rousers who staged a sit-in at then-Gov. Jeb Bush's office. Gabe protested the "systematic coverup" of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson's brutal beating and death at a juvenile delinquent boot camp. "We started with about 35 people the first day, had 90 the second, and a rally the third day of about 3000 students," he says. "We forced resignation of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement chief and helped close boot camps. Not bad."
When he graduated, he was $45,000 in debt. Some people would have taken corporate jobs. Gabe headed for Washington, D.C., where he was elected vice president of the United States Student Association. The pay wasn't enough to cover his loans.
When Democrats took control of Congress in fall 2006, Gabe and his USSA compadres began lobbying for debt relief. The kid who barely escaped hard time sat down with Sens. Edward Kennedy, Bill Nelson, and Mel Martinez, as well as Reps. Ileana Ros Lehtinen and Allen Boyd. Kennedy even greeted him in the Capitol's hallway. "Cool as hell," Pendas says.
The federal law he helped push through, which awaits the President's signature, is the biggest boon to students nationwide since the 1944 GI Bill. The numbers: $20.9 billion taken from banks and given to students at lower interest rates; Pell Grants boosted by about $1000, to $5400; and more than seven million students given various forms of help to pay college costs, which have increased by almost 40 percent in the past five years.
Compare that to Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist and the legislature are determined to fleece parents and pare college budgets. Crist recently agreed to let three universities — the University of Florida, Florida State, and the University of South Florida — increase tuition by 30 or 40 percent. Then he suggested eliminating $45 million of a $55 million increase that community colleges recently received. And he proposed delaying $38 million in construction.
Florida higher ed stinks. The state is 49th in the nation in student-instructor ratio. Schools regularly rate among the best in the country for parties, not academics. Top faculty members often head to more prestigious New England addresses.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The Magic City is at the center of Charlie's budget-ax bull's-eye. Miami Dade College, which enrolls the most degree-seeking students in America, would take a big hit. And Florida International University will be nailed proportionately more than any other in the state, says Bruce Hauptli, professor of philosophy and chairman of the faculty senate. One of Crist's proposals is to whack $5.4 million slated for an FIU medical school — though it has already hired some faculty. Another trim: $400,000 for hurricane mitigation. "Cutting before a hurricane — that's smart," Hauptli comments acidly. "These proposals are disastrous for our institution and for the state university system."
Enter Gabe Pendas. "I've had legislators tell me they don't want to fund education because it produces a bunch of liberals," he says. "They have some fools at the federal level, but at the state level, whoo...."
He'll be in Florida next week meeting with student leaders in Tallahassee, Gainesville, Orlando, and Miami. He probably won't stage a sit-in at Charlie Crist's office ... or slug him in the jaw. Both are FSU grads. But it's clear that Gabe is a guy with sway over a substantial number of students — and one who's intent upon making education available to rich and poor alike, particularly in Florida.
"This cannot continue to be the path that our state goes in," he says. "It's frustrating to see so much at the federal level and nothing at home. It doesn't make any sense."