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Student Activism on the Rise
By Elise Tecco

Despite the many negatives associated with the pandemic, there have been positive developments. For example, a report indicates there’s been an increase in college students’ awareness and involvement in social justice issues.

A nationwide survey of 750 students conducted by Cobretti Williams, PhD, senior editor of diversity, equity, and inclusion for BestColleges.com, revealed that college students are becoming more involved in social justice movements, with those involving race, culture, developmental and acquired disabilities, and ethnicity and nationality being top of mind.

As a college student myself, I can attest that I am more aware than ever about the social issues existing in our country. But college students being aware and interested does not mean that sufficient discussions are happening both in and out of the classroom. To learn about Williams’ survey results and what it means for the future, Social Work Today (SWT) speaks with him about his findings.

SWT: What do you believe to be the reasons behind this increase in social awareness?

CW: For the past year and a half, the pandemic has exacerbated the long-standing social inequities that exist for students, particularly when it comes to racial justice. As a result, students are learning about social issues at a higher rate (72% report that their awareness of social justice issues has increased in the past year), and their knowledge is inspiring action. Of those who supported one or more efforts, 46% were motivated by their own knowledge, 36% identified personally with the topic, and 37% got involved because the efforts addressed a group to which a friend or family member belongs.

There is a momentum that comes with passionate activism, which also increases awareness; 65% of students actively supporting social justice movements believe their efforts have an impact and drive change.

SWT: Were there any surprises among the findings?

CW: The hesitancy and uncertainty among students to discuss social issues with others is surprising. The 750 students surveyed were nearly evenly split on whether they were hesitant or found it difficult to engage in these discussions, with 35% agreeing it was difficult, 33% disagreeing, and 32% unsure.

This finding is significant because it brings into focus the need for colleges and universities to facilitate opportunities for intergroup dialogue on social issues—both inside and outside the classroom—so students can develop greater confidence to not only talk about social justice but also to take action on these issues.

SWT: Do you believe it takes a tragedy such as the George Floyd murder to stir passion about these issues among college students?

CW: I believe the tragedy of George Floyd's murder did, in some sense, serve as a wake-up call for many who were unaware of the harsh experience Black people encounter in the face of police brutality. George Floyd's death, as well as the loss of other innocent lives like Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, brought these issues to a boiling point for college students.

Recent research studies and data—including one report from the Education Advisory Board—assert that civic engagement among college students has increased over the last few years. BestColleges.com's study found that 58% of currently enrolled undergraduates have actively supported one or more social justice efforts in the past year, and an additional 30% reported that though they did not actively support social justice efforts, they considered doing so.

These tragedies may have ignited action among college students, but they were also symptoms of an already contentious social justice issue in this country.

SWT: You found that students primarily learn about social justice issues off campus. Was this surprising? What are some ways universities can help students learn more about these issues on campus? How are schools encouraging participation in social justice issues?

CW: Since the events of last year, colleges have undertaken a variety of actions to emphasize their commitment to social justice and antiracism, including heavy recruitment of BIPOC [black, indigenous, people of color] faculty and staff, funding research and community engagement initiatives to promote research on antiracism, and amplifying programs on campus that support Black and Indigenous student populations.

In addition to my previous point about facilitating intergroup dialogue on social justice issues, ultimately, I think students are waiting to see the change in institutional practices in their day-to-day life on campus when interacting with peers, faculty, and staff—especially once more students return to in-person learning.

SWT: How big of a role does the media play in increasing awareness? Do you think there are any downsides to learning about social issues through media?

CW: Social media plays a significant and important role in increasing students' social awareness. Technology and social media have become embedded parts of our lives that allow us to connect with more people than ever before on important issues.

I think the key to learning about social issues through media is being thoughtful about the sources used to obtain accurate information and ensuring the desire to bring collective understanding on a topic is not hindered by opinions that are falsehoods and often take away from progress on social issues.

SWT: The study was conducted among 750 students. Is that a large enough sample to make conclusions?

CW: Our survey partner employed a census-based approach, and this study included students from all over the United States, from New York to Iowa to California. Additionally, one-quarter of responses came from Black and Indigenous students of color. There were perspectives represented across varying gender identities and from students studying business, education, engineering, and psychology.

There are millions of students who pursue higher education each year; however, based on the diversity among respondents, I am confident this sample is truly representative of what college students believe when it comes to social justice issues today.

SWT: What do these findings indicate about the future of the social work profession? How can social workers play a role in advancing social justice? What are challenges they face?

CW: Social work is framed as a helping profession. Therefore, it serves a vital purpose in providing assistance to individuals, families, and communities in need. The results of BestColleges.com's study reveal a lot about what matters to future social workers, as well as future clients and patients the social workers will interact with. As a result, it is ultra important for those in the profession to stay abreast of these social justice issues.

If the goal is to provide resources to those with the greatest need, it is necessary to center the experiences of those most underserved, marginalized, and historically excluded in society. Just under half of students who actively supported social justice efforts (48%) [reported] that their involvement has impacted their career choices, and 51% indicated it has affected their coursework choices. For those looking to make a difference, entering the field of social work could be a way to do just that.

SWT: I’m a student at Penn State, which is a predominantly white institution. Do you think attending a predominately white institution affects the way students learn and view social justice issues?

CW: I think this varies based on the resources colleges and universities commit to addressing, understanding, and dismantling social justice issues on their campus. Historically speaking, predominantly white institutions were not created to support the level of campus diversity we see in the student population today.

As colleges and universities become more diverse, it is necessary that these institutions wrestle with their history and the ways they have reproduced or perpetuated racism, sexism, homophobia, and other social injustices on campus.

SWT: How does the current generation view social justice compared with past generations?

CW: I think the biggest difference between the current and past generations is the sense of urgency and the number of resources available to current students. In the past, students were not able to connect as quickly with others to mobilize and engage with social issues as they are today due to the advent and prevalence of social media.

As well, with the myriad issues we face in society today, including climate change, college affordability, and student homelessness, students are wanting answers to very important questions in a timely manner. It is on us as scholars, administrators, and people who support the work of higher education to work with this current generation of students and meet these challenges head on.

— Elise Tecco is an editorial intern at Social Work Today.