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Student Life

The Benefits of Students Acting Up

Amy Baldwin, Ed.D.

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The murder of George Floyd two summers ago sparked a series of protests across the world. It was difficult not to encounter the photos and videos on social media, or the news of thousands of people all over the world demonstrating.

I am an educator at a four-year university. One of my thoughts, among many others, was how to talk about this subject with my incoming first-year class that autumn. To stay silent about the impact on their lives didn’t seem to be an option. I thought, “Here is a great example of a ‘learning moment,’ what professors strive for: A real-world example of people engaged in a purposeful activity that is complex both in its origins and its impact.”

What I wanted for my students was the recognition that activism, such as protesting, is something that has been at the heart of a college education because it is about caring about an issue, collaborating with others to organize a response, communicating with different audiences, and acting purposefully and with integrity.

I believe, too, that parents need to know more about campus activism, its roots and purposes as well as the benefits to their student for getting involved.

Campus activism started with stinky butter.

The roots of protest in college go back almost 300 years when students started a literal food fight. The Great Butter Rebellion at Harvard was a student protest about “stinky” butter.

You may think I'm joking, but you can find out more about it here. Apparently at Harvard, there was a history of poor food (which is putting it mildly as previous complaints included “goat’s dung” in the pudding), and the butter was the final straw. The students stood up and the administration finally gave them what they wanted, better butter.

These early roots of student protest and activism can still be seen today.

Current issues can spark activism.

Over the years, colleges have been a place for walkouts, sit-ins, protests, bake sales, letter-writing campaigns and candlelight vigils. All these methods of protest point to the same purpose: Highlighting an important issue that needs attention or needs to be fixed.

Think the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, and school integration. During the summer of 2021, students at Juillard protested an increase in tuition. During the current academic year, students on a number of campuses have protested vaccination and mask policies, demonstrating how they feel about the restrictions both on and off campus.

Other controversial topics such as critical race theory, Confederate statues on campus or in the community, an institution’s ties to slavery or racism, “cancel culture,” and free speech may also stir up the sentiment on campus enough for students to march, protest or demonstrate their feelings about them.

Where your student goes to school can also affect the likelihood that activism will be a part of their college experience. Institutions that are more diverse and located in urban or metropolitan settings may host more student activism. This is not to say that the small, religiously affiliated college in a rural location won’t have students who get involved in a campus-wide protest. It all depends on what issue or event strikes at the heart of the student body.

Student activism has benefits.

For the most part, on-campus activism such as sit-ins and marches are peaceful and short-lived. Many groups are only looking to elevate their cause by drawing more attention to themselves or wanting to be noticed by the administration or the community.

However, it's natural to ask what the consequences of a student’s participation can be. Your student’s institution will have rules for protests that are often found in a student handbook or code of conduct (available online). Many colleges have special locations on campus for student activism and they will certainly require that all participants stay peaceful. While students who peacefully protest on their own time should not face any negative consequences, they may find that skipping a class to do so can impact them.

It should also be noted that protests anywhere can get out of hand, and if your student does decide to participate, they should be aware of their surroundings, take necessary precautions to stay safe, and leave if they ever feel uncomfortable.

I would argue, though, that college is a great place to develop an understanding of the world, a curiosity of what can and should be fixed, and the skills to demonstrate values and integrity. College also helps students see an immediate impact of their communication skills. Some students experience an intellectual awakening or a confidence about fighting for what they believe in when they are in college. Other students learn how to get others to listen and how to listen to others.

In my opinion, a student who is engaged in the world around them and figuring out what they believe in and want to support is something to be encouraged. Some of the benefits of participating in student activism include a personal sense of purpose. Students who find an issue that is important to them may discover that they want to continue to be engaged with it. There is also a sense of community that develops among people who work together to make a difference. These benefits alone can be transformational.

As both a parent and an educator, a young person who cares about something and wants the world to be a better place is an inspiration. They give me hope that things can and will get better.

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Amy Baldwin, Ed.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Student Transitions department at the University of Central Arkansas. She is co-author of "A High School Parent's Guide to College Success: 12 Essentials" and lead author of "College Success" (OpenStax), a free online student success book. Amy and her husband are parents of a college graduate and a current student. She blogs at
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