The Internet has taken student activism to an even higher level

It has been more than 40 years since a group of Columbia University students staged a sit-in at the office of the president, Grayson Kirk, to protest (among other things) the school's affiliation with a consortium that did military research for the government.

It has been more than 40 years since a group of Columbia University students staged a sit-in at the office of the president, Grayson Kirk, to protest (among other things) the school's affiliation with a consortium that did military research for the government. The incident led some to conclude that a generational revolution had begun with radical college students leading the way.

While the recent presidential campaign saw a return to the headlines of one of that era's revolutionaries – William Ayers – many observed that today's college students seemed pretty docile compared to their parents' generation. Where were the anti-war protesters? Where were the anti-globalists? Why weren't more students displaying anger with the corporate greed that had sown the seeds for financial cataclysm?

In discussing these trends with students, they have helped me understand that activism isn't dead; it has just morphed into the same virtual form reflected in so many other aspects of their lives. These students have virtual friends through online social networks; they have virtual adventures through cyber games; and now they are becoming social activists at the touch of a mouse.

One example of this is the amazing student response to the tragedy of Darfur. The “Save Darfur” effort has spawned many student-led initiatives, including one called “STAND: Students Taking Action Now Darfur!” formed in 2004 by a group of Georgetown University students. STAND now includes 850 chapters in colleges, high schools, and middle schools in 25 countries around the world. While it has recruited students largely through its Web site, efforts have also included student-led demonstrations in 25 cities and 13 conferences on genocide attended by more than 2,300 students.

Another group of students from George Washington University founded Banaa.org, a group that matches Sudanese Darfur survivors with scholarship opportunities in the US. Meanwhile, Pakistan-based YHN Foundation has now set a world record by collecting more than 62 million signatures, many from students, in a global grassroots effort to combat terrorism.

This surge in online activism has other implications. As I listen to students describe their career aspirations, I am struck by how many cite their desire to work for companies that will make a difference. Whether helping victims of genocide or volunteering in political campaigns, we are seeing a new level of student engagement, much of it spawned through Web-based networking. These students are defining a new form of social consciousness. Potential employers should heed this in designing recruiting efforts and orientation programs for new hires. What's more, cause-based organizations now have amazing, new tools at their disposal to utilize this untapped potential for volunteers and financial support.

Tom Martin is an executive-in-residence, Department of Communication, the College of Charleston. He also serves as a senior counselor for Feldman & Partners. He can be reached at martintr@cofc.edu.

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