This generation of college students has an extraordinary degree of anxiety about the future. On Feb. 6, The Daily Collegian reported that a recent study found that freshman have the highest levels of stress in 25 years. According to the article, “Linda Deangelo, the assistant director for research at the Higher Education Research Institute and one of the [report’s authors],” says that an unstable job market and expensive loans is contributing to the problem. “Students want more than ever for their college experience to mean something,” she told the Collegian. And this problem plagues more than first year students. There is a fundamental uncertainty in attending university in modern America. The promise of success that once accompanied a college degree does not apply to us anymore. Meanwhile, the cost of attaining that degree has risen to unprecedented levels, and is likely to continue rising. We can no longer count on things to “fall into place” after we graduate. We must be active in the pursuit of our futures.
If we are to be successful, we must have more to show for our college experience than a piece of paper. This past Wednesday, 17 University of Massachusetts students demonstrated their eagerness to take responsibility for their success. They brought their ideas and talents to the first meeting of Student Action, a new organization committed to galvanizing UMass students to be active participants in democracy.
I am the co-founder and co-chief executive of Student Action, and our work is driven by the sense of urgency most of us have about doing what it takes to succeed. We are networkers for civic engagement, which will expand our opportunities. Social capital clearly enables the individual, and some experts even credit it with helping to sustain democracy. According to the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, a rich associational life provides “the basis for the limitation of state power, hence for the control of the state by society, and hence for democratic political institutions as the most effective means of exercising that control.”
If we mobilize to assume characteristics of democracy: responsiveness, participation, competition and responsibility – we will be more effective students, job seekers and citizens. Student Action has no official party affiliation or ideology other than democracy, truth seeking and respect. Through discourse, action, workshops and networking (DAWN), our members are striving to improve student life while establishing a framework for post-graduation success.
Free and civil discourse is vitally important to the success of any group, and the survival of democracy itself. Discussion leads to effective planning and teambuilding, as well as an appreciation for opposing viewpoints. But it is just as important to speak with purpose. Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “How can a man be satisfied to entertain and opinion merely, and enjoy it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved?”
I worked with some political groups on campus when I was a freshman, but I grew frustrated when their action amounted to little more than lively discussion. And when these well-intended organizations did attempt to create change, they often hit a wall. I saw several bright and valuable members lose interest because they felt shut out or that their direction was somehow being limited. This is not to say that UMass has lots of great student groups, but Christian Waterman and I formed Student Action so that students could make their experience their own. It is also important to take on issues that are feasible. It is certainly positive to voice your opposition to the Iraq war, for example, but if your struggle for peace solely consists of “raising awareness,” it is unlikely that you will ever accomplish anything of substance.
Student Action is working to improve student and community life in ways that are doable. Through our “Concrete Canvasses” campaign, we seek to invigorate UMass buildings with student mural art. This program would provide students with valuable internship experience while creating an inspirational backdrop to our campus community. I described the benefits of such a program last semester in a column for The Collegian, and since then, Student Action members have taken the initiative to further its development. Our “Let Us In” campaign aims to make campus buildings more handicap assessable. We are working to create an internet survey to locate problem areas across campus, and ally ourselves with disability services in our efforts. We are also planning a number of community service projects, including anti-hunger initiatives and a clothing drive for Haiti.
Through our workshops, students will be empowered with the skills they need to be highly effective people. Upcoming instruction includes cooking basics, finance, investing and community organizing tactics. Student Action will also continue to network to gain valuable alliances, knowledge and opportunities – both for the benefit of the group and its members. Some of us are attending the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston this weekend to associate with key policymakers, journalists, media-makers and activists. We will continue to network to promote resources both on and off campus.
Dean Curran is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]