Where Are the Student Activists?
Justin Sullivan

The modern American student activism movement began in the 1930s, when the American Student Union was created. During its peak years, over 500,000 students were mobilized to stage one-hour strikes against war and to raise awareness on issues such as federal education aid and collective bargaining rights.

In the 1960s, students filled university squares, as protests in support of racial equality ignited across America while student commons of Berkeley, Madison, and schools across the country fostered a developing counter-culture.

Ten years later, students staged sit-ins and fought against the draft and the Vietnam War. Freedom of speech, freedom of information, and gender inequality were evaluated because American students organized and committed to changing them.

Most recently, the Occupy Wall Street protests inspired thousands across the country to stand against wealth disparity. One of the biggest differences in modern protests compared to movements of previous generations is their longevity. In September of 2011, thousands marched in Manhattan’s financial district. In 2012, only a few hundred did.

Today, it seems the energy and commitment to change, especially on college campuses, is gone.

Katherine Carson, a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point wildlife ecology senior, believes current students are faced with other issues than previous generations. 

​Student protestors at UWSP were very active with the Occupy movement throughout 2011 and into 2012.
Photo by Samantha Feld.

“It’s hard being a student, especially with how tuition keeps rising and everything is getting more expensive while wages aren’t going up, and so a lot of students are struggling to go to school and pay rent and eat,” said Carson, president of both the UWSP College Feminists and Students for a Democratic Society.

Carson also said that the proximity to an issue can hinder students’ involvement in working for change on issues.

“I think for a lot of students living in Stevens Point—a lot of issues don’t show themselves here. It’s not right in your face. You can’t really see people starving here. A lot of these issues just aren’t visible unless you are actively searching out information,” Carson said. “I think a lot of people just don’t know.”

Discouragement can also play a factor in a student’s lack of activity. In February of 2011, thousands protested Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s proposed bill to alter collective bargaining rights for public employees. In Madison, protests continued into the summer but subsided after the budget legislation was passed.

Defeat and the disillusionment that comes with it were realized in the capital protestors.

“People see that Walker won everything big that he asked for, and despite all the great activism, we don’t have anything to show for it,” said Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine in a June 17, 2011 article.

Carson said that, despite this outcome, political activism is still important.

“I’m active because the world’s messed up, and I can’t handle just sitting around and being okay with that. Sitting around being sad about it doesn’t do anything,” Carson said. “I don’t have these grand illusions that I’m changing the system, but I’m at least not sitting around and accepting it because just sitting around and doing nothing and not talking about it is equivalent to being okay with and supporting the way things are.”

Carson also said that students looking to get involved on campus should pay attention to the Student Messages of the Day, keep an eye out for posters from student organizations and engage with people tabling in the university center.

“If it’s something you don’t agree with, go talk to those people. College is supposed to introduce you to ideas, and we’re all supposed to be exchanging ideas and growing our minds. I don’t know if it’s just this campus, but people won’t really talk to each other. Maybe it’s intimidating for them. The way that schooling is structured, debate is not really encouraged,” Carson said. “You might get called out, and your views might be challenged, but that’s okay. That’s part of the process.”