By Alicia Green, Point Park News Service:
When Alex Austin realized how bad it’s going to get for his 11-year-old daughter and other kids who would one day attend college, he realized he needed to act for the future.
After learning about the Million Student March, a national movement aimed at tuition-free public college, the cancellation of all student debt and a demand for a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers, the University of Pittsburgh senior and veteran decided to plan a local day of action in Pittsburgh in November.
“This isn’t just your typical education anymore,” Austin, 30, said. “[College] has become a business for profit that doesn’t allow any upward economic mobility in the end because you’re stuck with paying ridiculous amounts of tuition. This was me acting for the future because there’s nothing that can be done in the short-term, but something can be done long-term.”
Recently, college students like Austin have taken their concerns to the streets through numerous marches and demonstrations across the United States. In 2015, there was a surge in the amount of student activism in the country, with most being in response to concerns about on-campus racism at many universities, experts said.
“Ever since the Missouri protests, there has been a huge upsurge of student activism on diversity issues led predominantly by African-American students, but kind of cross-racial ones too,” Robert Cohen, a professor of social studies at New York University, said in a telephone interview.
Kelton Edmonds, a professor at California University of Pennsylvania who studies black activism in the 1960s, estimates that there have been “over a couple of dozen” student protests over the past year.
“Not all of them make the media,” Edmonds said. “There are students at other schools that have sent letters to administration about certain issues or they’ve quietly protested with dozens of students in front of the president, the deans, [and] the administration.”
Edmonds said students are seeing a lack of sensitivity in regards to dealing with people on college campuses when it comes to racial incidents, citing the events that surrounded the University of Missouri protests in the fall of 2015.
He continued by noting that all students pay “a ridiculous amount of money to go to college, and know that they’ll leave school with a lot of debt,” which is why they want their universities to be responsive to issues that are important to them.
“That’s one of the main catalysts I think that’s making students [say], ‘Hey! We can’t just be ignored. We want to change some things. We want to insert our voice,’” Edmonds said. “Just like the students in the [1960s] did. They want a greater say in some of the institutional policies that go on at these universities. They want to hold these universities accountable for the things they’re not doing as well.”
Cohen said there has been a long tradition of student protests in the United States.
“Student activism in the United States is almost what this country was [founded on],” Cohen said. “People have always, off and on, the concern about different issues on campus whether it has to do with the way the campuses function or the way society functions.”
Cohen said in the 1960s there were a lot of student protests against war, segregation and sexism among other issues. Then in the 1980s, students protested against apartheid. Most recently, he said a lot of protests have dealt with diversifying the curriculum and making universities more accessible due to tuition costs.
“A lot of times on-campus protests are influenced by what happens off-campus,” Cohen said. “For example, the Black Lives Matter movement, which is like the modern version of the Civil Rights Movement, protesting against police brutalities and violence. Some of the students who were involved against racism at the University of Missouri had already been involved in the protests against police abuses in Ferguson. So there’s a connection.”
Craig Forrest, a graduate student who also teaches classes at the University of Missouri, said the reason students are becoming involved with demonstrations is because “the race issue is the big issue right now,” which he believes “really highlighted racial tension and discrimination.”
“The students are concerned about these things,” Forrest said. “That’s why you’re seeing African-American students mirroring what’s going on in the society around them. There have been these protests all over the country, not [just] on college campuses, and now you’re seeing that being mirrored by college students. It’s not a uniquely campus thing.”
From a student perspective, Rueben Faloughi said he sees the recent increase in student activism in a similar, but different way. The University of Missouri doctoral psychology student was one of the original members of Concerned Student 1950, a group of student activists, at Mizzou.
“The recent media attention given to the Black Lives Matters movement, I think, has helped a lot of this, especially on our campus,” Faloughi, 24, said. “Being so close to Ferguson has helped. A lot of the students come from Ferguson, and a lot of the students come from Chicago, so there’s just a culture protest that’s being born here.”
When asked if he considered himself to be a student activist, Faloughi said yes. He said, “It’s a life dedicated to being active” and “using your critical lens in your public and your private life.”
“I don’t think being an activist is something that turns off,” Faloughi said. “I think it’s in [your] everyday life. Activist. It’s a verb – to be active within yourself. Are you checking your own privileges and ways you might be oppressing others? How do you stand in solidarity or ally with identities that aren’t your own?”
He continued, “All this is intertwined in being active. That’s work within the person. That’s work between people. That’s ultimately work that happens that you take with you when you go into different institutions and systems whether that’s school or work, the community, church, everywhere.”