New Face of College Activism: Picket Fences, Not Picket Signs

This is the sixth part of an exclusive daily series that takes a look at the college experience, from how to choose what school and course of study is right for you to finding innovative ways to pay the bills.

"I can't stand politics," confessed Megan Garvey, a junior at James Madison University in Harrisonburg Va.

She's not alone.

Low voter turnout and a lack of political activism — especially compared to the Baby Boomers' protests of the 1960s and 1970s — are considered by some to be proof that students on America's college campuses are disinterested in the world around them.

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"The average student is not deeply engaged or committed to any political issue," said Lawrence Mead, a professor of political science at New York University, echoing the sentiments of many of his peers.

"They always say that an individual can make a difference, but that's not true," Garvey said. "You have to be a member of a political party, and I don't agree with either of them."

But several program administrators in and outside of universities say that while college students may not be as politically attuned as previous generations, they are active in volunteerism and community service programs.

"There hasn't been a major social transition in the world that young people have not been an integral part of," said Desiree Adaway, director of Habitat for Humanity's Youth Programs Department. "Students are addressing the social and economic problems in this country, and they are making a difference."

Part of that desire to make a difference may come from lessons learned in high school. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that at least 17 states have passed legislation in the past three years to promote or require community service participation among high school students before graduation.

Elsewhere, a number of high schools have made community service a course requirement or elective. The impact of such rules appears to be the development of more socially conscious adults.

"We see a growing number of first year students walking through the door looking to volunteer. For a lot of students, community service was a requirement in high school, so then they assume it's going to be a part of the college experience as well. This wasn't always the case," said Megan Voorhees, director of Cal Corps at the University of California-Berkeley.

Cal Corps traces its origins back to 1967, when it originated as a student-run organization. In 1987, it officially became a university office with its own staff. Its main function is to connect students with various types of opportunities for getting involved in the larger community, Voorhees said. Programs vary, and students can choose to do just about anything.

According to the organization Campus Cares, more than 5 million college students are estimated to have volunteered in the 1999-2000 school year. That's out of about 12 million enrolled undergraduates nationwide. Supporters of community service say that nearly 50 percent of youths volunteering their time is hardly a figure that suggests apathy.

"Community service is huge on campus. Almost all of the sports teams and organizations participate," said James Madison University's Megan Garvey, who is the volunteer coordinator for her water polo team.

"Our water polo team wrote letters to soldiers in Iraq, participated in Relay For Life, held food drives, etcetera. When you're helping the community you actually feel like you're making a difference in people's lives, instead of fighting to be heard," she said.

Adam Sapp, assistant dean of admissions for Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles County, Calif., has seen an increase in student involvement with each freshman class over the last several years.

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In 2001, the percentage of new Claremont students participating in a service club was 40 percent; by 2005 it was 60 percent, he said. Similarly, the percentage of new students in student government rose from 8 percent to 20 percent between 2001 and 2005.

Claremont is one of several colleges going out of its way to foster a responsibility to do community service among its students. It offers paid fellowships to students who want to apply for internships with non-profit organizations, allowing them to do volunteer work without having to worry about living expenses. In the 2005-2006 school year, the university spent about a half million dollars on such programs.

"We have to create socially responsible citizens. We don't just want our students to read books about these issues, they actually need to take action," Sapp said.

Other schools are developing entire centers focused around the notion of community service. The Princeton Review, which publishes college-ranking statistics, has even released a book entitled, "Colleges With a Conscience." The book ranks the top colleges that work to promote social responsibility.

Community action doesn't occur just inside the framework of the school's programs. Habitat for Humanity, for instance, has always relied on college students for participation, Adaway said.

The organization's 600 student-run campus chapters make significant contributions to Habitat's mission, she said, from planning alternative spring breaks where students help build low-cost housing to participating in Act Speak Build week, where volunteers put down their tools and instead advocate the Habitat cause in their communities.

"College students are a catalyst for change in our society. They give up their time, they fundraise the money for these projects … I am extremely proud of all the students I see participating," Adaway said.

Several school administrators said that today's students are conscious of the geopolitical and domestic conflicts occurring around them. But rather than protesting or demonstrating, they are finding that their actions speaks as loudly as any chants could.

"I would say that 'inside the box activism' is on the rise. These students grew up in the shadow of 9/11, and that has impacted how they might react to world events. Now that they're becoming adults, they might have friends who are going off to war, so they're seeing things on a much different level. There's much more of a personal reason for them to get involved," Sapp said.

"There is far greater equality of opportunity today than in previous generations. These students have had to work hard and face competition, so they see more fairness at work in the system, and less need to protest," said Mead. He noted that much of that volunteerism taking place nowadays is with foreign charities and humanitarian aid groups rather than in divisive domestic political issues.

Conflict and rebellion are not the only ways for students to react to trying times, added Sue Bigg, a certified educational planner based out of Chicago who grew up in the 1960s.

“My friends and I did all sorts of volunteering, including Medical Committee for Human Rights, civil rights demonstrations, letters to the editors of all sorts of newspapers," Bigg said. "My guess is that today's activities are more measured and carefully chosen, so mishaps may avoid the ‘permanent record.’”

Despite all the volunteerism, Voorhees noted that some of the most crucial social contributions come from student participation in more traditional university ventures.

"A lot of universities do invaluable scientific research, though it tends to not get counted as public service," she said. "But, without a doubt, it's the most important service universities provide."

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