A Student Should Have the Privilege of Just Being a Student: Student Activism as Labor

As student activists with minoritized identities work unpaid to improve their institutions and address institutional oppression, they are met with racial battle fatigue, burnout and exhaustion, and compassion fatigue, all while unable to engage in educationally beneficial college experiences, according to a recent article in The Review of Higher Education

A team of six researchers from five different universities examined the costs minority student activists pay when advocating, unpaid, for institutional change, and they concluded that student affairs educators should be the ones bearing these responsibilities. It’s “a job, arguably, student affairs educators should hold,” the authors wrote, explaining such professionals have the knowledge and ability to create equitable learning environments for all participants and to address issues of oppression, privilege, and power.  

“A Student Should Have the Privilege of Just Being a Student: Student Activism as Labor,” illuminates the way minority student activists steer through institutional oppression while interacting with administrators and educators. An examination of the consequences of that activism—academic performance, isolation from peers and family, and physical and emotional exhaustion—then follows.   

The six authors comprised two faculty members (Chris Linder, University of Utah; Stephen J. Quaye, Miami University), a women’s resource center director (Marvette Lacy, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee), a visiting assistant professor (Wilson K. Okello, Miami University), and two doctoral students (Ricky E. Roberts, University of Georgia; Alex C. Lange, University of Iowa). Collectively they represent queer white women, black heterosexual men, white queer men, black queer women, multiracial queer men, and black lesbian women. These researchers conducted 30- to 75-minute interviews with 25 students (11 graduate students; 12 undergraduates; two alumni graduated within the year) engaged in identity-based activism, using narrative inquiry to examine how power and privilege had influenced their experiences. 

The participants came from 14 different institutions of various size and type. Four of the activists were Asian-American, five black, three multi-racial, 11 white, one Arab, and one Latina. Seventeen were women, three were men, and five were either transgender or gender-queer; 14 identified as straight, four as queer, three as bisexual, two as lesbian, one as pansexual, and one as unknown. 

Data were analyzed qualitatively using three-cycle manual coding, a process designed by Johnny Saldana, author of “The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers,” that involves identification of words or short phrases that capture the essence of language-based data. Each team member coded two transcripts, then the team discussed the initial codes and developed a master code list. Two team members then coded each transcript, notes were compared, and discussion identified any coding discrepancies. Finally, codes were grouped into larger themes. 

By naming and paying attention to dominance and oppression in their data, what was interpreted from the coding were themes that recognized minoritized students having campus experiences that were neither equitable, nor inclusive.  

“Students described experiences with administrators protecting dominance, backlash from administrators and educators, and ways that institutions benefit from the free labor of student activities,” the authors wrote. Specifically: 

  • Activists saw administrators protecting dominance in three primary ways: financially; through freedom of speech claims; and by aligning themselves with the institution over students. 
  • Backlash included negative reactions by administrators (e.g., withdrawing interpersonal/institutional capital/support) and a sense of disconnection from faculty, staff, family, and peers (e.g., isolation, lack of understanding). 
  • Student activists in this study were acutely aware of how institutions benefited from their labor related to improving campus climate. Further, many student activists also noted the additional labor expected of minoritized faculty and staff frequently charged with supporting minoritized student activists. 

#BlackLivesMatter, Undocuqueer, DACA, and #MeToo are examples of a resurgence of student activism on college campuses, as students have “worked to hold their institutions accountable for racism, transphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and sexism, to name a few,” the authors wrote. But there are costs to doing that work, as one student interviewee, Teresa, pointed out. 

“A student should have the privilege of just being a student, and it’s really weird how that is a privilege, just being a student, but it obviously is because there are people who cannot only be a student,” she said, offering examples of how students with minoritized identities often had little choice but to engage in activism. 

The team’s work reveals the costs to students engaging in unpaid labor tied to diversity and equity on college campuses, “labor in which white, cisgender, nondisabled, wealthy, and male students do not have to engage.”  

“When students do not have the luxury of ‘just being students,’ as described by Teresa, they take on more than their fair share of commitment to improving the community, resulting in them having less time to engage in creative, intellectual, and other endeavors that would benefit their growth and development during and beyond college. They experience backlash and resistance from administrators and significant levels of exhaustion and burnout as a result of their activism,” the researchers found. 

It’s far more complicated than simply compensating activists for the work, the team noted, and they instead offered a series of actions student affairs professionals could take: 

  • Reflect on why activists are ultimately responsible for improving their campuses. 
  • Develop support systems for students currently engaged in activism. 
  • Support activists as they work to heal from oppression and the additional labor it required, including by directing more resources to campus counseling centers. 
  • Understand the significance of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion among student activists, and work to alleviate the additional labor required of minoritized students. 
  • Consider the unique interplay between activists’ minoritized identities and their activism, resulting in unpaid emotional, mental, and physical labor. 

Most importantly, the authors advised student affairs professionals to change the oppressive structures that require students to engage in activism in the first place, asserting that institutional leaders must respond to activists’ demands and stop relying on activists’ free labor to improve campus environments. 

Linder, C., Quaye, S.J., Lange, A.C., Roberts, R.E., Lacy, M.C., & Okello, W.K. (2019). “A Student Should Have the Privilege of Just Being a Student”: Student Activism as Labor. The Review of Higher Education, 42, 37-62.

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