Problems and Possibilites for Student Activism

Today in my Social Movements class Kevin Simowtiz of Virginia Organizing shared his experiences as a student organizer of the Living Wage Campaign. He also facilitated a useful discussion with the class on the obstacles and resources for student led movements. Here are the highlights of their conversation:

What are the obstacles to student* involvement in social activism or service?


  • Lack of an emotional connection to an issue – people may know facts but lack empathy
  • Social differences between students and less privileged people makes it hard to relate social problems to students everyday lives
  • Social and physical distance between students and the outside world makes it hard to escape the “bubble” and know what is happening
  • Service is not always regarded by universities as central to learning or student life

Time Bind

  • Students have increased demands on time – studying, working, commuting – service can be an added burden
  • Being a student means being transient. Four years is a short time to be engaged in a community.
  • In universities without service requirements or a strong center for service, it takes time and energy to find opportunities for engagement


  • While students are sometimes treated like consumers, they are not like regular consumers because they are also competing for scarce resources (admission, grades, credentials)
  • Competition can limit involvement in activities that are not seen to produce benefits in the job marketplace
  • Uncertainty about whether actions will have any real effects or cause real change
  • Fundraising can feel more tangible than direct service or protest
  • Bystander effects – someone else can take care of the problem

What are the particular opportunities for students to get involved in social activism or service?

  • Students have more time and flexibility than full time workers to engage and to do so in ways that are thoughtful and reflective
  • Students are often held at the bottom rungs of the job market in service occupations. In these jobs, they may have opportunities for contact with struggling older adults
  • Students make up a large and active constituency
  • Students often still have idealism and are more passionate about change

* We implicitly defined “student” as young adults enrolled full time living on or near campus

1 Comment

  1. Ahh, Mr. Simowtiz, a name of which I am familiar. It sounds like an interesting conversation I would have enjoyed. I really think what would help students is if they listened to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” and then ask them how much they believe the song. I mean, what are we, too lazy to go out and make the change ourselves? Think that would empower a few.


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