by Cara Gardner
In Managua, Nicaragua, university campuses don murals with political slogans, demands for justice, pleas for change. At the London School of Economics in England, students hold forums to debate their prime minister's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. In Indonesia, college students picket McDonalds and Starbucks, protesting globalization in general and the abuse of worker's rights in particular. And on college campuses throughout the United States, American students are galvanizing hundreds of their fellow classmates through e-mail listservs to protest sweatshops, promote labor rights, protect the environment and end violence against women, to name but a few issues.
"The trend in the past few years is that students have increased their activism level and are getting more politically savvy," says Anna Gonzales, coordinator of student activities at Gonzaga. "They are dealing with issues other than what's happening in their own microcosm."
Higher education has always harbored activism; campuses have been the birthplace of revolutions and social movements the world over. Despite enduring images of the typically apathetic, materialistic, class-skipping, video game-playing twenty-something college kid, activists say college activism is as strong as ever. And it's no different here in the Inland Northwest.
"We have a survey that we do for freshmen," Gonzales explains. "In as far as going out to the community, we have a lot of student activism. At least 85 percent of freshmen have been involved in service programs before coming to college."
While apathy is an ever-present bug, it doesn't exist only in the pop culture musings of affluent Americans.
"I don't think [apathy] can be a generalization of all college students," says Kristine Enkerud, a Washington State University senior. "There are students who get out there and try to learn, to educate. I guess it's important for me to feel like I'm doing something. It's hard when you watch the news and hear about what's going on in the world. There's a sense of powerlessness, and that contributes greatly to apathy. You think, 'I'm just one student in Pullman -- what can I possibly do?' So getting involved, like writing letters and meeting with others, is helpful."
Enkerud is involved in a WSU activist group called No Terror for Nobody.
"We formed after September 11, and what we're basically about is working to oppose oppression of all forms," Enkerud says. "We occasionally hold educational forums, we've had open mikes for poetry and we have a newspaper called The Nobody. We've had protests; during the war it was weekly and we were a part of the march to the university president's office. We wanted support for the international students during a time when it was becoming very difficult for them."
New Age, New Issues -- The Depression saw the first mass student movement in American history, with college students protesting and advocating for a more egalitarian society than what the New Dealers offered. Though student activism remained constant, it all but disappeared until the '60s, when it exploded again with mass protests against Vietnam, demands for civil rights and the women's movement.
College activism today centers distinctly around the effects of globalization, such as sweatshops and worker's rights; some students are concerned with how their college apparel is made, how much money service employees in their university make and what kind of stock their university owns. Also popular are the efforts to protect the environment, support or protest affirmative action, support gay and lesbian rights and close the U.S. government's School of the Americas, a military training school located at Fort Benning in Georgia.
On most campuses, whether it's a private college, public university, community college or training school, students can find an activist group for almost any cause.
Ben Metcalf, the student body president at Whitworth College, says the college is full of activist groups.
"A group of students from a class on conflict resolution and the student government brought the Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival, held by the Human Rights Watch Organization," Metcalf says. "Over 400 people came to that. We have an outreach organization called En Christo, which is Christian and are very active helping homeless and street kids in Spokane."
To list the activist groups on all local campuses would be impossible -- there are literally hundreds. For many college students, moreover, volunteering in their local communities -- not simply protesting -- is an integral part of activism. Metcalf says many students are active out of a sense of duty.
"I feel blessed about what I've been given, mostly for my freedom," Metcalf says. "I feel a debt to give back... because I have the opportunity to get a higher education, to have food, to not have to worry about suicide bombers. I have the power to be able to give back."
According to most recent publications on the subject, college activism is at a level not seen since the late '70s.
"I'm not sure what sparks it," muses Gonzales, the student activities coordinator. "It could be 9/11 that got the students thinking that there's a whole world out there and we need to be aware of what's going on."
Different, often startling realizations about the gap in economic, political and social freedoms can be striking for many college students who are emerging from their parents' protection for the first time. Exercising the right to voice one's support or protest has always been a celebrated part of American life. Working with groups of like-minded people is empowering -- and the belief that students, armed with enough passion and information, can effect change, truly is the antidote to apathy.
"To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing," wrote Raymond Williams, the British cultural historian.
Paul Lindholdt, an associate professor of English at EWU, and the faculty advisor for the student activism group, Eastern Environmental, says activism is on the rise because of the current political climate.
"I think it goes in rhythms and waves, and it partly reflects the political and national scene," Lindholdt says. "In times of great conservatism, like now, there will be an upwelling of activism."
Yet conservative activist groups, like college Republican clubs, supporters of the war in Iraq, fundamentalist religious clubs and supporters of the new world order have grown right along with the liberal activist organizations.
Majoring in Activism -- Part of why college activism is gaining momentum has to do with universities supporting the students' rights to organize. In the past, college administrators were often threatened by mass protests and worked to stifle movements. Now, many universities, in effect, require activism, offering credits, classes -- even degrees -- in service learning and activism.
"We have a service component for all students," says Gonzales. "The Center for Community Action and Service Learning has hundreds of students who volunteer for various projects, like Campus Reads, which helps elementary kids with literacy, and Mission Possible, where, instead of taking a spring break and partying, we have about a hundred students go all over the U.S. to work on [volunteer] projects, like Habitat for Humanity."
In fact, most colleges and universities now have service learning requirements. "We must do 15 hours of community service, at least," says Metcalf at Whitworth. "But it's not just going out and volunteering. You have to write about it and incorporate it into your learning. You explore how it affects the communities."
Lindholdt says the students in his group, Eastern Environmental, work along with the university's administration to implement change. He says the group worked through a "lengthy bureaucratic process" to get permission to put recycling bins along busy foot traffic areas on campus.
"To the university's credit, [the university] even got more bins and made them look official and less haphazard," Lindholdt says.
Students are able to incorporate their activism with their college education, getting support from faculty and blending their school projects with their experiences as activists.
"To put time in at a local nonprofit, they can get credit for that," Gonzales explains. Many students can begin their own groups, and then solicit sponsorship through a university department.
"We have an Engineering Without Borders group, and they are going to be working with Third World agencies on various engineering-type projects. They are sponsored by the Engineering Department," Gonzales reports.
North Idaho College even has an Earth Day committee built into its student body government.
While most colleges and universities require some level of activism, others make it the focal point of students' higher education. Long Island University's Friends World College requires students to spend all four years volunteering, interning and working for social change. The accredited school also has campuses in several places around the globe and asks students to spend at least two of their four years outside the United States. The New College of California offers a variety of degrees in social change, including an accredited law degree. It's becoming apparent that in today's world, getting a college education is synonymous with being active in the community and involved in the world.
Whether university students sign up for only the required service learning credits in order to graduate, or learn to weave activism into the spectrum of their higher education, avoiding activism on some level is virtually impossible, and university students are coming to realize this.
Often activism is simply choosing what not to buy, to use or to watch. Daily choices become statements. Every day is a forum to seek truth.
"There's a saying by Edward Abbey that I always tell my students," says Lindholdt. "It's 'Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.' "
Student activism in the '60s and '70s consisted of mass protests that often led to violence, arrests and property damage, but the tendency throughout the nation of today's student activists is to avoid these confrontations.
"They realize the public will find them easy to dismiss if they shout slogans and carry signs," says EWU's Paul Lindholdt, who works with student groups. "Activism can take many forms, and it's not just the conventional ways of organizing and protesting. There's a lot more work [going on] behind the scenes and within the system. You can say that's good or bad."
Students are now armed with the muscle of technology. By harnessing digital powers, students -- and activists everywhere -- are finding that language can be an effective weapon. As the Brazilian literacy and human rights activist Paulo Freire said, "Dialogue is the essence of revolutionary action."
"The rise of the Internet has changed the ways we can perform activism," Lindholdt explains. "We can write and lobby and persuade via language as opposed to signs and raised voices and fists. It's tactically and strategically diversifying the ways we do what we do."
"We definitely use the [Internet]," agrees Kristine Enkerud, a WSU senior and member of the group No Terror for Nobody. "It's such a great tool for getting info out to a large group of people."
Student groups are able to organize and distribute information about their causes much more easily and to larger groups of people with the Internet. Clubs can network with similar activist organizations at different universities; many hold rallies and meetings on the same day.
While some say that nothing gets attention like a rally, protest or mass sit-in, others argue that using the Internet allows students to galvanize larger followings, and with less of a tendency toward violence.
Anna Gonzales, coordinator of student activities at Gonzaga University, says that while digital media have allowed student activists to rally more quickly through e-mail listservs, nonetheless traditional rallies and subversive forms of protest are still present.
"During the war [in Iraq], there were groups of students who came out in the night and chalked bodies and drew peace symbols all over campus," Gonzales recalls.
Most colleges work with students who plan to rally or stage a protest.
"We just want students to understand how to take action," says Amy Newcomb, coordinator of student activities at the University of Idaho. "We're talking about citizenship, democracy, activism. We try really hard to tell students, 'You have a voice and you need to use it. If you don't, then don't complain.' "
Publication date: 08/28/03