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Student Activism and Advocacy

Civic Engagement
February 14, 2015 Peter Mather Ohio University

This blog post is a preview of an exciting session at the upcoming NASPA Annual Convention in New Orleans. The session, titled “Navigating Student Activism and Advocacy with Courage,” will be held on Tuesday morning, March 24 from 8:30 to 9:20am in the Hilton Grand Salon – Room 3.  Three authors who have written articles for the Journal of College and Character on the related topics of student activism and advocacy will present their research.

Chris Broadhurst and Georgianna Martin authored an article published in May 2014 titled, “Part of the “Establishment”? Fostering Positive Campus Climates for Student Activists.” This article, based on longitudinal data from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, examines how students’ perceptions of their campus environments affect their social and political activism. It also examines the contribution made by cocurricular activities to students’ participation in activism.

One of the most interesting findings of the study relates to the relationship between student perceptions of support from their universities and the level of activism on those campuses. Whereas there is a perception that students enact protests and other activist behaviors in environments that are unjust and unsupportive, the authors found that activism was positively correlated with supportive campus environments. Furthermore, they found that student involvement in service and leadership activities contributed to student activism.

This latter finding concerning student activities supports the efforts of many colleges and universities to strengthen students’ concern about social justice and public service matters through providing and promoting leadership opportunities on campus.

A burning question I have relates to the reason that institutions that are more supportive have more activism. Is it a human aggregate question? That is, is it the case that students are drawn to campuses where people like them (in this case, activists) are present, and university administrators who appreciate this type of student are present? Or, is learned helplessness bred among students in environments where activism is discouraged or shut down?

The second article highlighted in our session was authored by Laura Harrison: “How Student Affairs Professionals Learn to Advocate: A Phenomenological Study.” Laura’s qualitative research examines the complex world of advocacy and attempts to ascertain the ways in which student affairs professionals learned advocacy skills. This research is unique in framing this skill as advocacy, highlighting the important role higher education professionals have in providing support to students—particularly those who are marginalized. This research highlights the challenges associated with supporting idiosyncratic student issues within institutions that are striving for increased efficiencies. It also provides illustrations of power dynamics that can present challenges to advocacy work.

A significant portion of the advocacy article focuses on how student affairs professionals learn these skills. The short answer to this question is that they are rarely addressed in student affairs preparation programs. Rather, they tend to be learned through informal, “on the job” approaches. Laura recommends fostering discussions about power, as well as using case studies or other intentional units on advocacy into graduate education.

My own observation is that many master’s level students do receive an introduction to politics in student affairs and higher education through their graduate assistantships. Many a student receives an early attention-getting lesson about why what makes sense (on the surface) is frequently difficult to actualize due to some mysterious reason. Many times, graduate students may be protected from the real political gyrations that often provide challenges, or they are likely to see the politics as entirely local—an anomaly, not likely to be found when they land in a “good” job location, free of politics. Of course, they are almost certain to find later in their career that those positions are unlikely to exist.

Questions for consideration and discussion for the authors:

  • As you reflect on your articles, what were your most important takeaways?
  • Student activism has been around nearly as long as the American college, with protests occurring in the early 18th century. Activism then spiked in the 1960s, and seems to be gaining steam again in the 2010s. Is this true? If so, what are the primary causes of student activism today? What evidence is there that student activism is resulting in change?
  • Based on your research, how would you advise a new student affairs professional who is interested in supporting students who want to make change on their campuses—especially when those changes might face resistance from upper-level administrators?
  • Laura Harrison has suggested that advocacy education should be included in graduate preparation programs. With the growing complexity of university work, due to increasingly diverse student populations, growing legal and accountability requirements, etc., how can graduate preparation programs fulfill their responsibilities to prepare student affairs professionals for these complex roles? Should the field of student affairs re-consider approaches to graduate education (e.g., required ongoing in-service programs) in order to ensure professionals are up to speed on the knowledge and skills required to successfully and responsibly meet their role requirements?