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Millennials Keep Tradition of College Student Activism Alive


FILE - In New York's Foley Square, students protest against President Donald Trump's executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority nations.


College students around the world have been a powerful force for change throughout history.

In the United States, the 1930s, 1960s and 1990s were periods when every new generation of college students became involved in political action. They forced change on issues of war, poverty and environmental protection.

Millennials is a term that describes the current generation of 18 to 35 year-olds. They have faced criticism for rejecting behavior and beliefs of previous generations. But passion for political involvement is one quality that has not been lost.

In 2016, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles reported on the opinions of over 141,000 first time college students. The study found one in 10 students expected to be involved in some kind of protest during their college career.

However, not all student political involvement looks the same.

Getting money out of politics

Cassie Cleary is from Wakefield, Massachusetts: a small town outside of Boston. The 21-year-old says politics was not often a topic of conversation among her friends growing up. Her high school had no student political groups that she knew of.

In her second year at Syracuse University in New York, the political science and history student learned of a group called Democracy Matters. The national organization works to prevent private corporations from giving money to election campaigns.

Political science student Cassie Cleary stands in the middle of a group of her fellow members of Syracuse University's chapter of Democracy Matters.
Political science student Cassie Cleary stands in the middle of a group of her fellow members of Syracuse University's chapter of Democracy Matters.

Cleary was concerned about the 2010 Supreme Court decision on campaign finance. The decision allows businesses and groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.

So she became a leader for her school’s chapter of Democracy Matters. As chapter leader, Cleary plans meetings, invites guest speakers and even investigates sources of private donations to her university. She also organizes actions like getting student to call their representatives in Congress to express their concerns. Cleary sees her generation’s knowledge of technology and social media as a special tool for change.

"Let’s be honest. We have more time than the average person because we’re not working. We don’t have kids. So I think if we can get really involved in the backbone of these movements we can move them forward so much more. We have so much more to commit. And we have the energy to do it."

Helping minority communities

Wailly Compres, 21, is originally from Moca in the Dominican Republic. Like Cleary, Compres had little involvement in politics in his younger days. He said that as in the U.S., political discussion in his country can be very divisive. People often avoid it, he said.

In 2012, Compres and his family moved to New York City, where he attended an all-Latino high school. There he began to learn he and his fellow students shared similar experiences of discrimination as Latinos and immigrants.

After graduating, Compres began looking for a university that served his interests as a member of these communities. He learned of Bard College, a few hours north of the city. The school was home to ‘La Vos,’ a publication designed to share news and information for the Spanish-speakers in the area.

Bard College philosophy student helps lead other members of his school's chapter of the Million Hoodies for Justice Movement in a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Bard College philosophy student helps lead other members of his school's chapter of the Million Hoodies for Justice Movement in a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Compres became involved with La Vos and worked with members of the community outside the college. The philosophy student wants to connect Latino immigrants with helpful resources. He also wants to change negative attitudes some Americans have about immigrants.

Between 2012 and 2016, several deaths of African American men at the hands of police drew national attention. To show his support, Compres started a Bard chapter of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. This is a national student human rights organization aiming to end police violence against African Americans and other minorities.

But as Compres becomes more involved, he notes many students feel they only have time for activism while they are students. Every four years, he said:

"They leave, the activism stops. Another generation comes, it happens again. It stops, and so on. So I think that, like, our main goal right now is ‘How do we keep this going?'"

Sharing conservative values

Cade Marsh said he did form strong political opinions at an early age. Marsh is from San Diego, California. He calls himself a standard conservative, believing in limited government, personal freedom and individual responsibility.

Marsh began studying law at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida in 2014. At the time, there was a mid-term election for members of Congress. Marsh was unhappy with how the government was being run. And he felt that politicians have not appealed to younger voters.

"As my generation is spoken to less, and as our opinions are taken and reflected by our elected officials less, we are even less likely to come out and vote … That sort of trend can only last so long, though, because at the end of the day, we’ve started to reject standard political campaign communication and have started connecting peer-to-peer."

In early 2015, Marsh wanted to test his abilities as a leader. So he decided to join his school’s chapter of the College Republicans. Created in 1892, this national organization works to get students to join the Republican political party and support conservative goals. Marsh worked hard to share information about his political party.

By the fall, Marsh gathered 500 new members to his group. He also became the executive director of the Florida College Republican Federation. He even created his own political action committee called Campus Red PAC in 2016. The group raised over $100,000 to help share Republican messages at Florida colleges and register new voters.

Marsh graduated in early 2017, but he says his political activism is not over. He plans to continue his involvement throughout his life. And Marsh says he will encourage any children he has in the future to be politically active as well. He believes young people will always be a major force for change.

I’m Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor. We want to hear from you. How politically active are college students in your country? What kinds of student activism happen at colleges in your country? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

millennial(s) – n. a person who was born in the 1980s or 1990s

passionn. a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something

chaptern. the people in a certain area who make up one section of a large organization

social median. forms of electronic communication, such as Web sites, through which people create online communities to share information, ideas and personal messages

backbonen. the most important or strongest part of something

commitv. to decide to give your love, support, or effort to someone or something in a serious or permanent way

divisiveadj. causing a lot of disagreement between people and causing them to separate into different groups

graduatingv. earning a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university

negativeadj. harmful or bad

at the handsidm. by or through the action of someone or something

standardadj. regularly and widely used, seen, or accepted

reflect(ed) – v. to show something

trendn. a general direction of change

peern. a person who belongs to the same age group or social group as someone else

encouragev. to tell or advise someone to do something

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