This blog post was written by College Forward student, Lilith Osburn-Cole. Lilith received her BA in Anthropology from Texas State University in 2020.
When looking back on my undergraduate years, I think about the moments that truly changed me and shaped my understanding of what being in college really means. Yes, going to class, cramming for tests, being involved are all part of the college culture. However, campus is also a space of transformation that challenges your worldview. Social Justice activism lies at the epicenter of that transformative experience.
I would not say that I was any leader or hard-core revolutionary, although I dreamt I could be when I was involved in student activism. I had my fair share of sit-ins, and I stayed informed and supported students who genuinely put their lives and education at risk to fight against injustices seen on our very campus. Being a white woman who was fairly aware of my white privilege, I always felt like I couldn’t find where I would be the most useful. I was always afraid to involve myself in activism because I didn’t know how to use my privilege to support marginalized students in times of intense student activism. I hadn’t yet learned what activism looked like other than protesting, so I worked to figure that out.
I remember being dazzled by protests my freshman year, but I didn’t have the courage to protest myself. I was so perplexed because I had such a passion for social justice, and it became a quest for me to find my place within the activist realm.
So, I started volunteering at the university newspaper. I joined the paper as a Life and Arts reporter; not much revolution there, so I got an opportunity to see up close some student activism because that was always the best news to talk about. I witnessed several organized protests and sit-ins during my undergraduate years. Working on the paper brought me even closer to those events because the paper was usually in support of the students. At the same time, I joined my first social justice organization, and from then on, my passion for social justice started to come to fruition.
My Experience with Oxfam
I joined Oxfam on my campus, a very small group, I think 15 at the most, but we were motivated. Oxfam fights the injustice of poverty and has branches all over the world. This organization is present on several campuses in the US, some bigger than others, and is connected with Oxfam America, which provides support and guidance for university chapters. So, this is one fantastic organization for getting involved in social justice activism. We participated in protests and made a documentary about food security during hunger awareness month. I even had the opportunity to petition at Austin City Limits to raise the refugee cap.
Oxfam was a great group, but I started realizing I wanted to focus my attention on students and ways I could actively fight against structural oppression within my university. At first, I didn’t understand what that would look like, but at the same time, I started working for the only tutoring center on campus that catered to marginalized students. I took this job as my opportunity to use my skills and knowledge to support these underrepresented students with their education. This job gave me a real insight into the everyday hardships of underrepresented groups on our campus, and I started to realize the visibility of oppression within my institution. Our tutoring center was falling apart, for starters, and no one at the top seemed to pay any mind. That didn’t discourage me from actively using my role to be an ally to my students.
Being a Student Activist
Being involved in social justice activism in college looks very different depending on who you are and what you are passionate about. For some, social justice probably isn’t a choice but rather a responsibility to yourself and your community. From my experience, most of the student activism is started within organizations for students of color, LGBTQIA students, and immigrants rights groups. These are targeted groups of structural oppression in educational institutions and the broader American society. So, suppose you’re looking for organizations based explicitly on your identities, such as race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. In that case, those groups will most likely be the drivers of student activism.
Navigating student activism for me was a journey and still is. My work as a College Forward coach also allowed me to see how social justice works in a non-student-led organization, and I consider my time as a coach as activism. Therefore, the ways that we involve ourselves as students in social justice may not look exactly like stereotypical ideas of activism such as protesting. Although protesting is very important for change, there are other ways that social justice activism exists in college and the world.
My involvement in different organizations and realms of activism was a combination of my personal interests in non-profit work and my experience working with underrepresented student populations. For example, my work with Oxfam was greatly influenced by their message and anti-colonialist outreach methods. However, I was also a tutor for Student Support Services, a tutoring program catered to first-generation, low-income students and students with disabilities. When working there, I witnessed the impact of institutional injustices on my campus and how my students were affected. Like College Forward, I considered my job as a tutor as an activist role and worked to be an Ally for my students. So, my student activism looks very different from what one might consider a stereotypical activist. I felt my role was very internal, which also limited me in ways from speaking out sometimes. But, I always made sure to show frontline student activists, many of whom were good friends, that I supported them because I knew from personal experience what they were fighting for.
Embracing Student Activism
In the article, “Embracing Student Activism” authors Cassie Barnhardt and Kimberly Reyes insist that student activism bridges the gap between injustices in the educational institution and in the broader social context. The authors claim student activism as a reflection of societal injustices “[has] long been a means for students to personalize, contextualize, and make sense of what it means to pursue social change.”
These authors reveal why the college campus space is so transformative for many students. For those who are new to social justice, student activism can seem overwhelming at times. However, being able to witness injustice on a micro-scale, within your academic institution, makes conceptualizing injustice more tangible and real.