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Thinking of becoming a student activist?

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Joanna Hughes :
"We are living in an age of protest," UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai recently told The Guardian. And indeed, people are taking to the streets to advocate for causes in which they believe and to express outrage over injustices. They're also taking to college campuses-a trend which prompted The Atlantic to declare the arrival of the "renaissance of student activism."
Wondering whether you should join the fight for what's right?  Read on for a guide to everything you need to know about student activism today.
The new (old) student activism
Student activism is hardly new. In fact, says Milk.xyz, "Student activism has existed almost as long as the university system itself. In the early years of higher education, way back in the 1200s, students would clash with townspeople over a multitude of things; from property damage to the treatment of servants, students at universities were always clashing over hot button issues. Despite a checkered European past, student activism really arrived in the United States around the 1600s."
But some moments in history have called for more student activism than others, and now is one of those times. As history professor and student activist specialist Angus Johnston told The Atlantic of the ripe-for-protest climate in the US, "The campus environment right now has, for the past couple of years, reminded me a lot of the early- to mid-60s moment, where there was a lot of stuff happening, a lot of energy-but also a tremendous amount of disillusionment and frustration with the way that things were going in the country as a whole and on the campuses themselves."
But this attitude is far from limited to the US. All over the world-from Chile to Paris-students are united by a common thread in stepping up for change, says Johnston: "One of the thing that ties (the campus movements) altogether is a sense that the future doesn't look as rosy as it might have a few years ago."
Furthermore, asserts, Johnston, universities are uniquely positioned to facilitate activism among students. He told The Atlantic, "A lot of the protests … embrace national issues through the lens of campus policies. The university is big enough to matter but small enough to have an influence on. It becomes a site of organizing because there are opportunities to organize on campus that a lot of times you don't have in an off-campus community."
A recent Higher Education Today blog takes this concept a step further by suggesting that higher education institutions have a mandate to foster campus activism in order to remain "vehicles for social change" with benefits to students and universities alike.
Jumping into student activism
If you're ready to add your voice to the collective call for justice, keep in mind that there are many different ways to do so-the majority of which, we feel compelled to add, don't necessarily involve shouting into a bullhorn, tying yourself to a tree, or even carrying around a mattress on your back the entire academic school year. (Although there's arguably a time and place for gestures of a more extreme nature.) Nor does student activism implicitly mean getting in trouble with your university, arrested, maced or something worse.
Says QS Top Universities, "Student activism and campaign work need these 'media moments', but they also need research, networking, planning, events organization, debates and discussions, fundraising, petitions, press releases - and more. So wherever your skills lie, you'll be able to put them to good use." The Anti-Defense League (ADL), meanwhile, suggests 10 different ways to engage in activism, only one of which actually involves demonstrating.
And while student activists may once have been viewed through a negative lens, the times they are a changing. According to a recent Financial Times article, even MBA programs-which "have not traditionally been regarded as hotbeds of activism" are now getting in on the activist action. Their inspiration? The examples of real-world world business leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, who use their positioning to make change.
The best part? The leadership skills you gain from your activist exploits will distinguish your graduate school applications and/or resume in today's increasingly conscientious business landscape. Says FT, "Another reason why MBA students are willing to campaign is efforts by schools to broaden their appeal beyond people hoping to fast-track careers in investment banking and consultancy, to executives from the public sector and not-for-profits. Increasing numbers of applicants put 'social impact' goals in their business school applications, according to Paul Bodine, founder of Admitify, the MBA admissions consultancy."
That being said, making real change takes something else: real time. Adding activism to an already full student schedule can quickly become overwhelming, and may eventually lead to diminishing returns. The key to making your investment pay off? Choosing a cause you truly believe in.
 (Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family).

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