Fostering Student Activism on Campus

Success must be measured by more than immediate results.
By Rachel Watson

The best way to learn about effective activism is by doing. Advocacy may take trial and error, but experience is the key factor in accomplishing goals, which is why student activism is so important. Engaging with issues on campus gives students the tools they will need to advocate effectively for causes both in and out of the university.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Central Oklahoma, I have learned more about how to be realistic and accomplish goals by working to solve problems on campus than I could have through any amount of reading or academic work. However, faculty and staff advisers can help students understand some basic components of student activism. Effective student activism requires carefully selecting a goal, developing strong student-based networks, and, often, winning faculty support.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many groups—including the LGBT+ community, to which I belong—felt threatened by the president-elect’s campaign promises. My partner in activism, Caroline Reckner, and I, like many other students, were anxious about potential new discriminatory policies. We felt helpless in the face of these threats and saw no obvious, concrete path to countering them. Being involved in the leadership of the campus LGBT+ group, I knew of steps that I could take to protect myself and others—hosting programs to teach people about their rights, for example, and providing information about where to find trans-inclusive healthcare—but I still felt that I was not doing enough. It was not until I heard about the sanctuary campus movement through a trusted professor, Marc Goulding, that I saw how I could take concrete action to protect at-risk populations on our campus.

Sanctuary Campus Movement

Sanctuary campuses seek to defend undocumented students, including those covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy established by the Obama administration that allowed immigrants who were brought into the country as children to work and study in the United States legally. The definition of a sanctuary campus is relatively fluid: sanctuary campuses may seek to ensure that DACA students get in-state tuition, they may refuse to disclose the immigration status of their students, or they may instruct campus police to limit their cooperation with immigration officials. All sanctuary campuses, however, have made public their commitment to educating people from all backgrounds.

Making UCO a sanctuary campus became our primary goal for a few key reasons. First, it represented an immediate and specific policy that students could advocate through direct action and that the university could put in place. Second, Donald Trump had specifically made campaign promises to end DACA—promises that he has since taken steps toward fulfilling. Third, if students currently protected under DACA took a leadership role in the sanctuary campus movement, they would be making themselves targets for potential threats, investigation, and possibly deportation. As US citizens, neither Caroline nor I would face similar risks. A final reason for our comfort with this goal was the earlier success of similar student activism that ensured that rollbacks of federal LGBTQ protections would not affect diversity and inclusion policies at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Caroline and I drafted a petition to declare UCO a sanctuary campus, drawing on language used in petitions from other campuses and on language that our university president, Don Betz, had used in an email to faculty, staff, and students reaffirming UCO’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. A student-led petition seemed the best route to declaring the institution a sanctuary campus, both because our president has a long history of listening to the student body and because other approaches would have faced excessive bureaucratic obstacles. We hoped to quickly garner support and gain the attention of the university president, and in that we succeeded. To get to that point, however, I had to ask every campus leader I knew for support.

Building Support

Before we started the petition efforts, I was already a member and leader of several student organizations, so I recognized many names and faces of students across campus. Caroline, as the president of the UCO Socialists’ Alliance, lent the movement greater legitimacy and enabled us to reserve a table in the student union for collecting signatures and to reserve a room for our public forum on the issue. Numerous other student organization leaders allowed me to speak at meetings and pass around the petition, gave me tips on distribution methods, and offered encouragement. One such person was my friend David Terry, who not only convinced the chair of our student government to sign the petition but also dedicated large chunks of time to soliciting signatures when both Caroline and I were in class. He did this despite not being involved in early planning or personally affected by the cause we were advancing. The same was true of many of our other most vocal supporters across campus.

Although Oklahoma is a politically conservative state, Caroline and I enjoyed the support of faculty and staff members in the Department of History and Geography, my home at UCO. We had the support not only of Professor Goulding but also of many other faculty and staff members who signed the petition, made our emotional labor easier through words of encouragement, and granted us precious class time to talk about the petition and gather signatures. Another professor in the department, Lindsey Churchill, was a member of the faculty senate; she was able to collaborate with a staff senator to secure endorsements for the movement from both governing bodies. These endorsements represented a monumental win for our sanctuary campus petition, as they broadened the movement from one that was student-led and studentfocused to one that had support from faculty and staff across campus. Once we had this support, we were interviewed multiple times by on-campus news outlets as well as by an off-campus social justice blog, which introduced our cause to an even broader audience.

In the end, we managed to collect the signatures of almost five hundred students and staff. We also garnered the endorsement of six student organizations and the approval of UCO’s student government. President Betz, however, expressed concern about the term sanctuary, and in the end he decided that our state funding would be at risk if he fully granted the demands of our petition. However, the president did agree to sign the Pomona College statement, a document originally issued by Pomona College that commits its more than seven hundred college and university signatories to protecting students enrolled under DACA. While we failed to achieve our final goal, we still succeeded in making sure that students on our campus felt valued, regardless of immigration status. We sent an important message to our student body about inclusivity and our commitment to protecting all students.

Lasting Impact

We began this journey with ambitious aims, fully intending to have UCO declared a sanctuary institution. Realistically, though, we knew that our goal would put our institution in a legally murky position and potentially jeopardize our state funding, and some argued that there was little use in even starting this project. Evaluating the ends is an important step in determining whether an action is worthwhile, but there are many reasons for activism aside from whether the efforts are likely to lead to the creation of a new policy. Some problems cannot be solved with policy action, and educating the community about the issue can be just as important as changing the institution’s rules. Many students, both friends and strangers, wanted to help DACA students but did not have the time or the resources to devote to the issue that Caroline and I did, and they let us know that they were grateful for our efforts.

Additionally, learning how to work toward policy goals that affect the campus taught us lessons about how to advance such goals in a broader community, be it a city, state, or nation. We were able to do so under the helpful guidance of professors and department heads who were familiar with the institution and presented us with all of our options for action. The university is a place of learning, and that includes learning about how to become involved in issues that affect students. Advocacy outside of the classroom is just as important as, if not more important than, studying theories without praxis inside the classroom.

Surprisingly, in the course of our campaign, one of the news stories that aired about the petition also featured someone who worked in the admissions office warning students that applying for admission or financial aid might place them at risk for deportation. Those already enrolled in DACA have put themselves on a list that could be used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify and target them. At UCO, our efforts may have affirmed the institution’s commitment to providing education to all students, regardless of their immigration status, but they did nothing to reduce the threat of deportation to many who live and work in the area. What we did accomplish, however, was significant: we changed our campus for the better, and we taught others and ourselves how to engage with local government to influence policy. Advocating for change on any issue, no matter how large or small, can create a lasting impact on campus and on the student activists involved. 

Rachel Watson is a BA candidate at the University of Central Oklahoma majoring in history and president of UCO’s Student Alliance for Equality and Education. Watson’s email address is [email protected].