NEW YORK -- Thursday afternoon, in concert with the Occupy Wall Street movement, students from nearly 150 college campuses across the country will participate in their second protest in as many weeks.
As with the nationwide walkout held last Wednesday, the students will band together to make their voices heard -- with many expressing frustration over increasing amounts of student loan debt and the rising cost of tuition, in addition to a paucity of jobs for recent graduates.
“We’re planning to do these walkouts and shows of solidarity every two weeks until these issues are resolved,” said Natalia Abrams, 31, who helps to organize Occupy Colleges, a student-led grassroots group based in Los Angeles that helped facilitate both nationwide protests. “If Occupy Wall Street is indefinite, we’re indefinite as well. We plan to keep the solidarity protest going for as long as it takes.”
In many ways, today's protest marks a significant challenge for student backers of the Occupy Wall Street movement, not only in terms of coordination and organization, but also with respect to maintaining momentum.
“Participating in something that’s clearly ascendant is always something of a rush,” said Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University. While McAdam said it was inherently difficult to build on the momentum of a movement that's neither centralized nor coordinated, he cautioned against making too much of its diffuse nature.
“We like to talk about big, historic movements as if they were these spectacularly well-coordinated affairs. They almost never are,” said McAdam, who teaches a course on political movements. “Very broad, diverse efforts are generally more effective because you can speak to different constituencies. It becomes quite difficult to suppress a movement that doesn’t have one distinct leader or head.”
Occupy Colleges, which started as a Facebook page and Twitter handle less than two weeks ago, has quickly blossomed into a burgeoning movement bolstered by a groundswell of student-led support. As of Thursday morning, student organizers at 136 college campuses -- from Sarah Lawrence College to Boise State University to San Diego City College -- have pledged to participate in Thursday’s show of solidarity.
“Around the country, more and more high school students are foregoing a college education because their families can no longer afford it. So many more are graduating with inconceivable amounts of debt and stepping into the worse job market in decades,” reads a statement on Occupy Colleges’ website. “They take unpaid internships that go nowhere and soon can’t pay college loans. We represent students who share these fears and support Occupy Wall Street.”
Shay Berman, a 20-year-old junior at Michigan State University, is organizing his campus’s show of support later today. Based on rough Twitter estimates, Berman is hopeful that about 50 of his classmates will join him at the Rock, which is a common area on the East Lansing campus dedicated to free speech and protest.
“We’re worried about our future and that the middle class won’t exist once we get out of school. Also, the rising cost of tuition is a big concern,” said Berman, who said his participation in the Occupy Wall Street protests marked his first significant political involvement. “We’re just frustrated with America and the whole way our society is run. “
According to Gonzalo Vizcardo, 21, a senior economics major at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., 45 students plan to attend a general assembly on campus later this afternoon. Meanwhile, about 40 students at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, are readying for a similar gathering.
Last night in San Marcos, a handful of students spent the evening making hand-painted signs in preparation. Later today, the same group plans to meet at the Stallion, a "free speech zone" at the center of campus. From there, the group will march to the nearby square in downtown San Marcos. Their aim: increased visibility and the dispelling of apathy.
“Student debt is a huge issue, with some students starting to question the wisdom of even having a degree anymore,” said Joshua Christopher Harvey, a 24-year-old junior who previously served in the U.S. Air Force prior to being discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Harvey organized both last week’s walkout and today’s march. “The main thing that’s come up at our meetings is that there’s only a six-month grace period to start paying our loans back -- and we’re worried there won’t even be jobs available once we get out.”
Brayden King, an assistant professor of management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, sees college students as a natural constituency in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“If, say, you’re a middle-aged investment banker, you might look around your social group and think the economy isn’t doing all that bad,” said King. “But if you’re a college student or a recent graduate, you’re thinking the exact opposite when all of your friends are either unemployed or working in jobs that are much lower paying than what they expected to be doing after they graduated.”
Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan, also sees the college protests as a natural part of the movement’s evolution.
“For young people in particular, it’s an opportunity for them to learn about activism and politics for the first time,” said Heaney. “While the 2000s were an intense period of protest, the current generation in college wasn’t really exposed to the earlier period of activism of the last decade. And for a lot of these students, this is their first movement.”
Heaney is currently studying how the first time an individual participates in an activist movement later reverberates throughout the course of their lives. “The point is that first experience with activism will have a long-lasting effect, affecting the way they think about activism, the tactics they think are important and even affecting their social networks,” said Heaney. “But it also has the opportunity to put them off.”
In terms of Occupy Wall Street's ultimate impact, McAdam notes that while early participation in a movement can help shape young activists, equally important is the historical context of the movement itself.
McAdam studied participants in Freedom Summer -- the 10 week-period in 1964 when civil rights activists, many of them college students, traveled to Mississippi to register black voters -- who later became more politically engaged members of society as a result.
He found that it wasn’t simply their activism that mattered, but the fact that they participated in the movement during the beginning of sixties-era radicalism.
“In many ways, this particular moment looks a lot like a Freedom Summer moment," said McAdam. "With our economic woes likely to continue, or perhaps even deepen, for some time and the election coming up next year, it is very likely that we are entering a period of escalating economic, political and social turmoil.
“For students, it won’t have a long-term impact simply because they went to an Occupy Wall Street demonstration a few times, but because it began a process that carried them in the way that Freedom Summer started a process for the Mississippi volunteers.”