Remembering student activism

I was back on campus last week – 19 years after graduation – thanks to the invitation of a faculty member with whom I have maintained contact. I was eager to meet students and to learn what issues drive them to ask searching questions. It was a beautiful fall day – one that you want to capture and re-release in mid-December. As I ran on campus in the early morning light, I encountered a number of students rushing to class and recalled how as students we are so preoccupied with our studies and anxious about the uncertainties that we face beyond college years. I was also reminded of an incident that changed the quality of education and college life for me.

I was a biology major and had hopes of becoming a neurosurgeon. The summer before my senior year I worked at the Boston Children’s Hospital and stumbled into a lecture that a physician who had recently returned from Chile and Guatemala was giving on the political situation in those two countries. He spoke of torture, killings and “disappearances.” He spoke of the role of the U.S. government and the vast scale of injustice.

I was moved beyond words. It was an introduction to the world of cruelty and abuse and I took it upon myself to read every book available on the topic. By the time I returned to Williams, I was determined to be engaged with campus organizations. I believed then as I do now that once one is aware of the existence of cruelty and the sense of urgency in addressing it, there is no choice but to act.

My senior year at Williams was wonderful. I awoke to the world of humanities and took as many courses as I could to learn about social, political and philosophical issues. But it was through involvement with campus activities that I learned most. Some friends and I started an alternative radio news program. We researched the news around the globe and would broadcast a news analysis on Sundays. I learned about actions that we could take to oppose an ongoing war and massacres in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Several faculty and students started a solidarity group to provide aid to Palestinian refugees after the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.

There was also a massive student opposition to apartheid and the College’s investment in South Africa. Of all activities, the latter was most engaging because it felt most tangible and thus subject to change. And as students at Williams, we felt a sense of responsibility. Our goal was to get the College – not the United States – to divest from South Africa. A great many students were involved; there were debates, teach-ins, and discussions of moral versus economic payoffs. At one point, students took over the Deans’ Office in Hopkins and a number of students went on hunger strikes for days. Ultimately, the students were successful in achieving their goals. They got media attention and the attention of the trustees. And Williams did finally divest from South Africa.

Don’t misunderstand me – this is not an exercise in nostalgia. I asked students whom I met last week about their social commitments and issues that spark the campus into a dynamic learning and caring community. I received a lot of confused looks. As I relayed a summary about past generations’ campus activism, they looked surprised. One courageously retorted that they had not been given a sense of the historical role of student movements at Williams (and in the United States) and thus they felt completely powerless and cynical. How did we get here? Students in the most repressive countries in the world have historically been at the helm of demanding social justice. I promised the students with whom I conversed that I would share my recollection of our generation’s activities on campus. Now I am going to ask that you rise to the challenge.

We are on the brink of a war in the Middle East. There is massive and growing environmental, social and economic injustice around the world. The rising scale of poverty in this country is astounding – and depressing.

The world needs more voices of reason. You need to take ownership of issues. You are in a position to organize panels and teach-ins. You have incredible resources at hand to educate yourself about the world in which you will be an actor and need to be cognizant of the implications of your decisions. You can be active in your own community or beyond. The struggle for change is a lifelong struggle – like Sisyphus, you will push a boulder continuously up a hill – but if it is a worthwhile cause, it will give your life special meaning.

Consider the alternative: leading an unexamined and unengaged life. A Williams College education prepares you to do so much more; take advantage of it.