Student activism takes a different sort of dedication

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For many high school students, choosing a college is like choosing a soulmate: They are encouraged to pick the school that matches their interests and personality.

And colleges do an excellent job selling themselves as bastions of learning, fairness and social progress, which, within reason, they are.

Before entering Harvard University, my opinion of the world of higher education was so high that I had never imagined challenging my school's policies. I suspect that many young people share that view, and too many talented students interested in social change allow their schools' unjust practices to go unchallenged as a result.

That, at least, was my perception of my school when I entered college. It was only by chance that I decided to participate in a freshman pre-orientation program for students interested in social justice, where I met upperclassmen who had been unafraid to challenge university policy.

I realized that Harvard, like virtually every one of our social institutions, affirms the same injustices that exist at all levels of our culture. Unless students do something about it.

So even though I never had imagined denouncing -- sometimes aggressively -- my school's policies before college, I spent the better part of my freshman and sophomore years doing just that.

Students, as it turns out, have a tremendous amount of power to create change at their universities. If you're interested in changing the world, challenging your school is an amazing place to start.

In my three years in college, I have witnessed talented students launch and win campaigns challenging my university's labor practices, sexual assault policy and responsible investment standards, to name just few.

They and other student activists are consistently told by university staff that their demands are impracticable. Don't believe them.

My own career as a student activist began when I learned about a student at a nearby university who had persuaded his school to serve to exclusively cage-free eggs in its dining halls. (Cage-free eggs are produced in facilities where hens are not caged, in contrast to conventional egg farms that confine hens in tiny battery cages, widely thought to be one of the cruelest technologies in modern factory farming.)

I had been passionate about animal rights and the environment for as long as I'd been old enough to care about any issue. When the possibility of starting a cage-free campaign of my own was suggested to me, I leapt at the opportunity. What could be more rewarding, I thought, than making real change for a cause I love? And I was right.

Many student organizations offer students straightforward tasks, regular rewards for their efforts and navigable opportunities for upward advancement, but activism takes a different sort of dedication. Students hoping to make change at their schools may not have any guidance from peers or superiors, and neither will they have a script to follow that can tell them what to do.

Launching a campaign will require a young activist to build a coalition of committed students, define an ambitious goal and plan a targeted road map to attain it -- essentially building an organization from the ground up.

Over the course of my 10-month-long campaign, a lot of things about my school came to surprise me.

I was frustrated to learn just how resistant to change I found university administration to be. Harvard looked out largely for its money and public image, and, like any successful student campaign, I needed an overwhelming display of student pressure and publicity.

Student support and campaign publicity can be achieved in a lot of ways. In my case, change came after many nights of door-to-door petitioning, meetings with student groups and administrators, and enlisting the help of alumni donors.

It was at once thrilling, exhausting, frightening and enlightening. As I watched what once felt like an impossible goal became reality, I learned more about social change and interacting with institutions than I ever had in my life.

Student activism is for many young activists an important lesson in what social changes looks like. Sometimes activists make change by battling their enemies, but in many cases the work of change makers is to challenge institutions they love.

That can demand a great deal more courage than challenging an opponent. But it can also yield the most fruitful results. Some mistakenly read student activism as an improper assault on university authority, a narrative that has unfairly cast some activists as hysterical or unreasonable.

It is true that activists put a great deal of pressure on university leadership. But I can hardly think of a greater form of reverence than pushing your institution to adhere to its own values.

education

Marina Bolotnikova, who was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette, is a senior majoring in Slavic languages and literatures at Harvard University. She can be reached at localnews@post-gazette.com.


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