Why Being a Student Activist is More Than Just Being Mad about Something

By Isabella Bejar, The University of Texas Austin '16

Activism is something I joined on a whim. But then it became an integral part of my college experience.

This is Where it Gets Personal
Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, students have been an integral part of the activist community. By having a communal space, and time to prioritize their passions and resources in their community, students are able to organize as an informed, goal-oriented unit in a way that a group of 9-5 career types would never be able to. Note that I didn't say students just have all this spare time on their hands. Any real student knows that there isn't actually any free time, there are just priorities.

This is particularly relevant now, when it is perfectly common to set a phone alarm for a nap, schedule time for eating, grocery shopping or anything else. When you add activism or social justice causes into your schedule it has to be for something that you truly care about and have the energy and headspace to keep in your life.

Krystal Morales, a junior at UT Austin, somehow manages to make time for it all. She's an officer in the university's Amnesty International chapter and didn't even think about human rights and activism until she took a class.

"I took a class on human rights and world politics and that's when I was first exposed to the concept of human rights, and what human rights were and the right to have human rights. A lot of the time we just aren't aware of our privilege that we have. I guess I was aware of human rights but I guess I wasn't aware of the human rights violations -- or the gravity of human rights violations." Morales said.

When I spoke to other students I repeatedly heard discussions about the importance of understanding their own privilege and remembering how that can help or hinder another person's ability to speak up.

Not All Angry and Scared to Insult Someone
There's no shortage of arguments that involvement in student activism leads to a savior-complex, narcissism, over-inflated self-worth, or an angry disposition. But how much truth do they really hold?

If you're unfamiliar with it, UNICEF is an organization that works to aid people in various parts of the world through grassroots efforts. Marlon Haygood, a freshman member of the organization, said he chose his biology major with the goal of helping people.

"I want to travel to underdeveloped nations, and assist in research concerning public health matters" Haygood said.

One of the most impactful moments he had regarding his concern for human rights occurred when he worked at a private pool, talking to a well-off club-member.

"She leaned in close to me, squinted, and said 'Yeah but don't you want to do something that makes money?' I was floored. Maybe it was an overreaction on my part but I came very close to snapping at her. I had just shared my dream, and she dismissed it entirely because it wasn't going to make me rich? Was there nothing more in the world that might be slightly more important than that?"

Like Haygood, many of the activists that I've met have a true and sweet way of caring about issues that may not be directly affecting them. They feel that they have the time to act in solidarity to try and make things a little bit better.

As another example, Robert Charles Gonzales is a member of LiNK -- Liberty in North Korea on the UT Austin campus. LiNK raises money for people who have defected from North Korea, as well as raise awareness for what is actually happening in terms of human rights and politics.

The news only tells us about the failed missiles, but there are also small black markets and outside ideas reaching the people that live their everyday life in that country. There are students that, through the small act of selling fried Oreos every Friday (they are damn delicious BTW), are able to directly help people.

"Am I to turn my back on these injustices and do nothing, knowing that they're transpiring just because it's "odd" or "outside my culture"? The wonderful thing about human rights is that they should apply to all, they're basic and all encompassing." Gonzalez said.

Analyzing why an issue exists in the first place can be the first step in understanding how it needs to change and where best to put your effort. An important decision then becomes whether that group of informed individuals continues to sit around and talk about the issue, or if they will actually go out into the community and do something about it.

It's More than Protesting Every Little Thing
Activists choose the causes they care about most, and they fight for their causes in a variety of ways. And I'm speaking from experience here. Immigration is a huge issue in the US, particularly when you live in Texas. For the past two years I've continued to get training and volunteering at DACA Clinics. You know that bit of unofficial paperwork that helps undocumented kids remain in the US and have access to work opportunities and higher education?

That paperwork is expensive as shit. It's almost $500 just to get the paperwork through. Not to mention how much it can cost to get all of the extra documents that have to go inside of it. For me, it's less about, "Oh look at me, the natural-born citizen, helping out these people," but more of, "If my family hadn't come to the states in the 1940s when visas were easy-peasy, then my family would be in the same boat and I'd be on the other side of this table." I put in the time to help because I understand how hard it can be, not because I have the entitlement to do so.

The death penalty is also a really big issue in Texas. You know, since Texas and Florida are probably a few of the last states to actually continue executing people. Krystal Morales first got involved with a death row campaign for a man that was very likely charged with a murder he didn't commit (His name is Rodney Reed, look him up - the case is shady as hell).

"My sophomore year I was involved with the Rodney Reed case and at UT we held a vigil which I was part of, we did a march to the governor's mansion. Just being aware of that and working with the Worker's Defense Project and the families and how welcoming they were [really impacted my life]." Morales said.

Events like these interest directly affect how a student goes about their education. Krystal Morales is an international relations and global studies major, Haygood is in biology. Their end-goals include helping people and being a part of their communities. Not just sitting around whining about what's wrong with the world.

But Yes, There is Some Protesting
The point of a protest is to loudly bring attention to a particular issue. Yeah, it's going to disrupt your day, it might disrupt traffic, they might be really loud outside while all you want to do is sleep or study in peace. Well, too bad.

There are so many things happening simultaneously in the world, good and bad, that sometimes the only way to learn about something is to have it thrown at your face. Protests can do that. Or at least bring it to the forefront of your mind: Like racism in Greek culture, death penalty cases that are super shady, the plight of people in North Korea, police brutality cases in your city, or universities making deals with huge corporations.

If it's a problem that is being ignored or brushed to the side to make way for something else, then it's the student activists that are going to get out there and tell you about it.

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