Monday, April 23, 2018
Education

USF student body president gets a dose of politics, Tallahassee style

TAMPA — He listens to opera and studies philosophy. Like his father, he cries over happy things. Matthew Diaz, 22, has a favorite expression: The sweet is never as sweet without the sour.

One day life will be sweet. Right now, he has an aftertaste of Tallahassee politics.

The student body president from the University of South Florida led a 19-hour, round-trip road trip to the capital Wednesday to oppose massive cuts to the school's budget. He reminded a state Senate budget committee that college students are also voters.

In response, he met the tart tongue of 82-year-old Evelyn Lynn, a Republican state senator from Daytona Beach, who chided the students for being unprepared. Their numbers were wrong, she said, though their facts about the likely impact of cuts on USF had come from the school's own analysis.

She scolded Diaz for inconsistent positions on tuition hikes, suggesting that he was well off and reminding him that some students can't afford college.

"I felt like I was in fifth grade, getting lectured," Diaz said. "Maybe, to her credit, she knows something more than I do, and I'm a naive student."

He didn't argue. His mom, he knew, would expect him to show respect. (Listening back home, his mom was irked at the way the senator was talking to her son.)

Here's what Diaz could have told the budget committee:

His mom, Adriana Diaz, didn't go to college. His dad, Mario Diaz, got there by taking night classes at Long Island University when they lived in their old neighborhood of Corona in Queens, N.Y. He grew up going to Catholic school and speaking Spanish at home.

They left Queens and moved to Bradenton so that Matt and his younger sister could ride bikes around the block in safety.

"We're not rich people," said the father, 50, a pharmaceutical rep.

Diaz, the son, studied hard at Lakewood Ranch High School. He also had a job at a pizzeria.

The day he came home and said he had won a $28,000 Kiwanis college scholarship, the father cried. Now, the son cries remembering his father's pride. The sister cries talking about her wonderful brother. They are emotional people, the Diazes.

Matt Diaz, with dual majors of political science and philosophy, graduates from USF in May.

His honors thesis is about the financing of higher education in Florida.

He wants to go to law school, have a family, get politically active and one day hold federal office.

The fight over funds for universities has enlightened him but not pushed him off course.

He remembers losing faith in politics when a squabbling Congress couldn't agree on raising the debt ceiling. The political system seemed broken. But then, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis visited the Tampa campus.

Diaz told Davis of his disillusionment. By the end of the conversation, he realized that politics needs his passion.

That helped this week in Tallahassee.

He feels assured that USF's budget cuts may find relief in a reconciliation committee later this month. If not, the university said the total impact of the cuts would be about $103 million.

Diaz was amazed at the sway of JD Alexander, the Senate budget chairman pushing to bring Florida Polytechnic to life in the middle of a state financial crisis.

"The perception is that politics are in play on this matter," Diaz said. "It's difficult not to believe the perception."

He's not so much worried about his own days at USF, soon to be over, but about what will remain for his sophomore sister.

The sister, named Adriana after her mother, considers her brother one of her biggest supporters. The worst thing she'll say about him is that he takes too long to open Christmas presents.

She did what any loyal Diaz would do: She posted a video on Facebook that showed Sen. Lynn scolding Matt.

"I was like, 'That's my brother. Don't yell at him.' "

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]

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