Why College Students' Activism Matters Far Beyond Campus

Student activism started in the U.S. with a protest over butter quality at Harvard College in the 1700s. Since then, it's affected so many aspects of society, from racial justice to sexual assault and more.

We've seen a lot of protests this year, from masks to women's rights and climate change. They're a regular occurrence on college and university campuses, and they're influencing our country more than you think.

"In so many ways, student activists have changed what the student body looks like and what colleges are teaching," said Kate Cude, senior research analyst at EAB, a consulting firm specializing in educational institutions. "The first African-American studies department was established as a result of student activists' efforts. [Student activists] influence labor practices, how well staff at the institution are treated, campus police. If you name a name a topic relevant to campus, student activists have played a role in shaping that."

Collegiate activism in the U.S. has been alive and well for hundreds of years. Back in 1766, students at Harvard College had concerns about food quality at the school, more specifically about the butter. Their disapproval led to a walkout, and half the student body was suspended. It sounds silly, but this was likely the start of student activism in America, and the issues driving these actions and their reach have only gotten more impactful with time.

"Student activism has come in waves historically, so there have been peaks in the 1930s, the 1960s, 1990s. It's kind of common, these 30-year waves," said Jerusha Conner, professor and author of "The New Student Activists." The book breaks down some of the people and motivations behind student activism on college and university campuses.

"These protests are often rooted in an understanding of that institution is their home for four years," Conner said. "When you feel like your home isn't living up to its purported values or commitments, or it's not a place where you feel like you belong or you're accepted, you want to push it to be better."

Conner believes the most recent wave of student protests started in 2015 at the University of Missouri. There was a series of protests criticizing the school's racial inequality, workplace benefits and leadership. After a few months that included dozens of protests and a hunger strike, the school's football team threatened to go on strike, as well. Soon after, the University of Missouri System's then-president, Tim Wolfe, and the university chancellor at the time, R. Bowen Loftin, resigned.

"There has been a dramatic uptick since 2009, 2010, when it was around 15% of students nationally who said they were engaged in political protests or demonstrations," Conner said. "We saw that rise in 2015 to 25% and in 2018 to 30%."

More protests means more student activists. Zyahna Bryant is one of them. She started the petition to take down the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2016.

"My high school activism shifted from just wanting to have a seat at the table to curating my own spaces where I could lead the conversation, where students who looked like me, future first-generation college students, could lead the conversations that needed to be had," Bryant said.

Now a student at the University of Virginia, Bryant is using newly acquired skills to continue making a difference in her community and nationally.

"When I started college, I was taking classes that were putting words to the things that I was already experiencing and feeling in Charlottesville," Bryant said. "As I was able to find the language for those things, I was able to write articles, do op-eds and find a community within academia where folks were necessarily passionate about doing the research so that activists had the data that they needed to support their causes and their claims."

These days, student protests have a strong online component, too. Washington State University athlete and activist Dallas Hobbs calls this phenomenon the "virtual streets."

"It's social media. It's all the news. It's the media you see on the internet. All you need to do is have a phone, have access to internet, and you can be a part of it," he said.

For the past year and a half, Hobbs has been fighting for the rights of college athletes in the areas of COVID-19 safety, racial justice and financial freedom.

"It has this trickle effect," Hobbs said. "You hit one person. That one person is going to turn to two. That two is going to turn to four. It just keeps growing because you share this connection that you didn't realize you had with this person," Hobbs said.

And in a lot of cases, college activism really does work. Students have helped shape school curriculum, sexual assault policies, prison reform and more.

"It's all about inconveniencing people, and when people are inconvenienced, they typically listen more," Bryant said. "They have to pause, and they have to think about how their convenience can be linked to a form of oppression or injustice. And they have to make the decision of whether they're going to change or continue with the way that they've been going."