This post was written by Jennifer Tran, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund intern and a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is involved with diversity and inclusion issues on campus.
It is said that political consciousness often emerges on college campuses. A time of self-discovery and exploration, college is a place where many students first develop their organizing and political skills, especially around ensuring that all students have equal access to colleges and universities.
In recent years, this has taken the form of various student-led efforts like #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan), “I, too, am Harvard”, The Black Bruins at UCLA, #BeyondTheStereotype at USC and UCLA, as well as the Undocumented Longhorns on my campus, the University of Texas at Austin.
In recent weeks, another effort has made the news rounds. Students at Colgate University in upstate New York organized a five-day sit-in to petition university administrators for policies to address long-building campus climate issues in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, and other marginalized identities.
Last week, I spoke with Olivia Rauh, a senior political science and philosophy and religion double major at Colgate, and one of the students involved in the sit-in. Olivia helped coordinate media and communications during the sit-in, especially with advocacy organizations like The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Like many campus protests, “this was about an overall atmosphere of marginalization, not just of race, but of gender and gender identity and other forms of marginalization,” Olivia said. “The administration was sweeping issues under the rug and not changing…it was pretty clear that we had to do something to make them listen.”
With savvy planning and persistence, their efforts garnered the attention of Colgate administrators and national media. After long and heated negotiations with student leaders, Olivia told me, the administrators finally agreed on a detailed plan to address diversity and inclusivity on campus, including hiring two student workers to keep the administration accountable.
But the students at Colgate are not done. Their organization, the Association of Critical Collegians (ACC), is committed to keeping a vigilant eye on the administration.
Student-organized protests on campuses like Colgate are some of the most visible examples of a youth-driven movement spanning the country today.
I have personally seen the power of student-led efforts on my campus. UT Austin’s enrollment of 52,000 includes students from all types of backgrounds, making it a hotbed for diversity and inclusion issues. In the last few years, we have had issues ranging from bleach-bombs targeting students of color to challenges to the school’s holistic admissions policy in the Fisher v. University of Texas U.S. Supreme Court case, in which the school prevailed.
But UT Austin’s history is also filled with many successes, thanks in large part to student efforts. Our Center for Asian American Studies is the result of students who protested and were arrested in the university president’s office. Our Multicultural Engagement Center, one of the main hubs of student organizing, and of which I am a proud product, is the result of marginalized students who came together to create a space (at the time, an abandoned closet) for themselves.
Each of these efforts were driven by passionate and dedicated students who knew, like their contemporary peers at Colgate, that one of the key ways to get their administration’s attention was to demonstrate and make their concerns known. Campus organizing has been one of the predominant ways through which university policy on diversity and inclusion issues has changed.
When my peers and I organized around Fisher on campus, national outreach was outside the scope of our consideration. It was not until we were approached by various advocacy organizations (and in the case of Fisher, The Leadership Conference Education Fund) that we began to understand how we could expand our campaign with media, demonstrations, and other events.
This knowledge and skill set is certainly not intuitive to most students, but can catapult movements into the national spotlight, much like it did for Colgate.