In the Age of Coronavirus, Student Activism Is More Relevant Than Ever
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities have been quick to shutter campuses and pivot to online instruction. But in doing so, they have revealed the gaps in our safety net and higher education policy, highlighted the challenges vulnerable students face, and left some students to come together and take up the slack themselves.
It’s a cruel irony that at a time when our most vulnerable students should be solely focused on their own well-being, schoolwork, and livelihood, many are serving as first responders — disseminating information, supporting fellow students, and confronting problems on their campuses that their institutions may not have adequately considered or addressed.
Pomona College students are a case in point. When the administration decided to evict students from campus residence halls, students who could not go home or lacked safe home environments organized, launched a GoFundMe page, and successfully pressured the college to provide emergency housing for students who need it during the coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, a coalition of students from the University of North Carolina (UNC) system — many of whom live in rural areas with no or limited internet access — compiled a list of demands, including more flexibility around online attendance and access to online instruction, as well as graduation requirements and grading. They insisted system leaders prioritize the best interests and well-being of all students, and especially those with few resources to fall back on during this difficult time.
But student mobilization efforts go beyond the campus gates. Harvard University medical students, for example, organized a COVID-19 virus response team to help take the pressure off frontline health care providers — such as physicians or residents caring for patients suffering from the virus – by fielding calls and screening other patients who come to the hospital for routine procedures.
As a former student activist turned higher education policy analyst, I’ve seen firsthand that students are fully capable of mitigating issues when they are given an opportunity to be heard and participate in decision-making.
Over the past year, Ed Trust has met with various student activists and student groups who have informed our organization’s policy work on students’ most pressing concerns — including Mia Kagianas, a recent graduate of Sacramento State University and former president of Cal State Student Association (CSSA), and Latrel Powell, a recent SDSU grad and former vice president of legislative affairs at CSSA.
A few months ago, Mia told me that students are especially concerned about the college affordability crisis and the disproportionate impact it’s having on students from low-income backgrounds. She outlined the tradeoffs and opportunity costs associated with going to college — like not being able to work as many hours or having to work twice as many hours, which can both leave students bearing a heavy burden that’s not just financial.
Latrel was likewise troubled that so many students are taking on massive amounts of debt and hardship to get a degree: “There are students who are not able to focus in the classroom because they have missed meals to pay for textbooks, or don’t have a place to stay over breaks because they cannot afford housing and their situation back home is unsafe,” he said, which is why “we should be advocating for increased financial aid that puts dollars directly where they matter: in the pockets of the students who are facing intersections of these various challenges.”
Such measures seem all the more urgent, as these higher ed crises — which are outlined in CSSA’s policy agenda (affordability, racism, housing- and food-insecurity) — will only be intensified by the COVID-19 crisis, and students who were already in need will likely feel the most intense fallout.
So, too, does Mia’s call for a mindset shift. As she explained, “It is time to stop looking at [these issues] as students’ inability or burden to bear,” and start seeing them as “the institution’s inability to provide us with what we need.”
It’s important to involve students in the policymaking process at all levels, Latrel said, noting that students’ “proximity to the issues makes them so much more informed” and gives “much more needed context in terms of crafting solutions.”
We at Ed Trust couldn’t agree more. That’s why I urge higher education administrators, leaders, advocates, and policymakers to be sure they are getting the student perspective and creating direct channels for students to weigh in on decisions that could be life-altering for them.
In this global crisis, we remain deeply worried about whether the students who are most vulnerable will get the help they need or bear the brunt of this pandemic. So, we are talking with them and sharing our concerns on social media and paying close attention to what students are saying and how they are responding to their institutions’ decisions to evacuate college residence halls, move to online instruction, and more. We just hope administrators and policymakers are paying attention, too.