Diligent viewers of CNN and MSNBC this weekend might have seen, in the crowd at Washington University, a young man holding up a sign that read “STUDENT DEBT SUCKS VENMO @ ALBERTWU97.” I caught him Sunday afternoon during an MSNBC broadcast and, having already trudged through hours of punditry, found him a wonderful distraction from the tedium. It was compelling enough that I donated five bucks and dropped in some graduation cap emoji.
Speaking over the phone Sunday night, the 18-year-old freshman from Newton, Massachusetts, was dazed and excited by the attention his poster received, which has now earned him over $400. “I just thought it was something really funny, I didn’t think it would garner any attraction,” he said. “I was more happy that [my mom saw me on TV] than the sign.” But the Venmo transactions gradually began trickling in. “They all had really nice comments, like ‘Hey, I feel you bro. I know it hurts. From my student debts to yours.’ A lot of heartwarming things like that.”
Wu’s witty poster resonated as a funny take on a pressing problem that’s defined this election from the primaries; it’s not hard to figure why Bernie’s economic message resonated so fiercely with young collegiates, facing uncertain futures post-graduation. But his sign was also an example of true-blue American hustle—and, in a fine microcosm of capitalism and crowdsourcing, soon he wasn’t the only game in town. “I was there yesterday, but I came out today and everyone has Venmo posters. I had a monopoly on the market, but everyone saw my sign and now the cash flow’s gonna be spread out a ton.” (Wu’s presently enrolled in Washington University’s Olin Business School.)
With Wash U’s average tuition costing over $66,000 a year, though, Wu’s Venmo earnings won’t make much of a dent. (He says he’ll put it in his emergency fund, and wants to specifically stress he is underage and will not be spending it on alcohol.) But the sentiment is something, and Wu—who is a Clinton supporter—said he was heartened that donations came from both sides of the aisle. “It’s certainly something that I hope comes up in the debate, because student debt is so relevant, especially for the youth who have such an impact on the vote,” he says. “‘Student debt sucks,’ it’s such a simple message. I think both sides of a political nation can relate to that. We’re Americans who are dealing with this.”
And as for the tenor at Washington University prior to tonight’s Town Hall? “It’s buzzing, the whole campus is buzzing. There’s music playing, there’s food, games. Everyone’s in a great mood and decked out in USA gear. We’re so fortunate, and I’m proud to be a Wash U student.”