Student Activism: Raising Voices Throughout America

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When a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, tensions reached their highest peak and culminated in over 70 campus protests nationwide, according to data compiled by Campus Compared. Brown was black, and Wilson was white. It was a narrative that had become all-too familiar.

Kelli Oliver did not know how to feel. She, and more than 100 of her fellow students, slowly marched to the student center at Ohio University. Their solemn steps kept to the rhythm of a borrowed protest song.

“Which side are you on, friend? Which side are you on? Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all.”

The protesters voted to occupy the student center, even after administrators publicly informed them they would be arrested if they didn’t leave. But they weren’t arrested; administrators backed down and protesters stayed for most of the night.

Oliver, a junior studying commercial photography, felt her emotions tug her in all directions.

“It was a very weird moment because I’m going through all these emotions at the same time,” she said. “Being at the memorial [when the decision was announced], I’m so sad. People are crying. But I’m also so happy and excited that these people are ready to make this move. I’m also scared.”

Protests covered college campuses in nearly every state the last year, including on college campuses which aren’t typically home to protests. While some of the causes were specific to the university – such as a protest at Temple University about a black professor being fired after criticizing the dean of the college – most students were fighting for common causes.

Over 2,500 miles away, in another corner of the country, Monique Ashwill felt that empowerment. She protested with the Portland State University Student Union at a Board of Trustees meeting where they were to vote about deputizing campus officers, allowing them to carry firearms on campus. In the wake of Ferguson, this vote looked like a dark cloud rolling over campus.

Portland State University students marched almost 10 blocks, hitting plastic, five-gallon buckets with sticks to the beat of their chants, making bystanders notice them. When they arrived, they stopped and just laid down on the floor. Surrounding the doors of the meeting, they staged a die-in to parallel the dangers of deputization to the death of Michael Brown. They laid there for 30 minutes. Annoyed administrators and faculty members were forced step over students, but they were not the only ones who were frustrated.

“It didn’t make me feel like I want to stop,” Ashwill said. “It actually made me feel like they were starting to realize that we were there, and we were very against what they were trying to pass. It’s very easy for them to ignore us all the time, and so that was like a moment when they could not just ignore all of us laying on the floor. And I was also annoyed because they didn’t understand why we were doing it.”

Why did you become an activist?

Stephanie Mascorro is a student activist at the University of North Texas
Monique Ashwill is a student activist at Portland State University

This concept of widespread campus protests about a specific event – like the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – is not unusual. In his article “Perspectives of Student Political Activism” in Comparative Education, Philip Altbach explained that college activism is usually spurred by a specific political event, using examples of student activism in the 1960s.  While students got their start in the 1960s, activism is not a continuous presence on all campuses. Rather, it comes and goes depending on the events and political climate of the nation.

“In the contemporary period, broader political issues have been the main stimulants for large-scale student activist movements,” Altbach said. “Issues such as nuclear war, civil rights and liberties and of course the war in Vietnam have been the main motivating forces for American student protest during the 1960s.”

Universities offer a unique atmosphere, which may be more conducive to activism than other settings. Some scholars have argued that it is because of the age of the average college student.

“[Some] have argued that students have a propensity to ‘anti-regime’ attitudes because of the nature of the campus culture, youthful idealism and the like,” Altbach said.

“The issues which stimulate student political activism are broad political questions, sometimes related to ideological matters,” he wrote. “Students are frequently not struggling for their own direct benefit but rather for idealistic causes.”

A perfect example of this is Stephanie Mascorro, a social work student at University of North Texas. Mascorro and other student protesters successfully stopped production at a McDonald’s in New Orleans to advocate for workers’ rights,  just as the Mardi Gras parade passed outside.

“I feel really proud of myself because it feels like I’m standing in solidarity with people who really need something, who really need the world to see something. So I feel proud of myself because it’s like, I helped a little bit,” Mascorro said.

Despite students like Mascorro, student activism researcher Angus Johnston said student activists don’t typically fight only for idealistic causes. In fact, he said there isn’t really a “typical” student activist because the commonalities that existed in the 1960s just don’t exist anymore.

“The typical student in American higher education in the late 1960s was much more likely to be white, much more likely to be male, much more likely to have come from a wealthier, upper- to middle-class family,” said Johnston, who also founded and currently operates a website dedicated to publishing news about student activists. He also said students today don’t fit the mold created in the 1960s and so protests today are more complex.

“Because the student body is so much more diverse now than it was before, the experiences and life experiences students have are a lot more diverse,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot more difficult to find commonalities when the student protest landscape is much more complex and diverse than it was 30 to 40 years ago.”

As the landscape on college campuses continues to change, so will student activists. But activism itself will never stop. It may peak and plateau, but it will always be present. Even if the students themselves are not idealistic, their causes tend to be, Altbach said.


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