This past Election Day, 65 members of the Columbia University College Democrats dragged themselves out of their hotel beds at 5:30 a.m. in Newport News, Va., ready to fan out across the city and get Democrats to the polls to vote for gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. That weekend, Columbia students knocked on 27,500 doors. Student activists have power: We helped swing an election that weekend. As students downed coffee, a campaign volunteer in his mid-50s came up to me to make sure everyone had gotten breakfast. When I told him that all of our students had given up their fall breaks to bus down and campaign, he looked at me and said "You know, I always thought everyone under 30 was the 'Me Generation.' I guess you're all proving me wrong."
In my years at Columbia, I have had the great pleasure of meeting, learning from, and working with students who prove exactly that. Millennials aren't part of a "Me Generation"—at least not at Columbia. Plenty of students here are politically aware—they're founding nonprofits to fight health crises, or they're tutoring 10-year-olds in Lerner on Saturday mornings. But when I first arrived here, I was surprised by how resigned students were to an administration widely perceived as unresponsive to students' pressing concerns. Maybe it was because we were naturally worried about losing a recommendation letter or angering a dean. Maybe it was because, when it came to our campus community, students were apathetic after all.
But in the last year, we've seen that beginning to change. I hold out hope that we're seeing a resurgence of student activism. In the last year, the Student Governing Board fought back against Barnard's speech-suppressing flyering policy, Barnard Columbia Divestment launched the first ballot initiative in Columbia's history, and Student Worker Solidarity fought to cool the John Jay kitchens. The Dems (disclaimer: I'm their very proud president) took over 150 students to Ohio to campaign for Obama in 2012 and campaigned at home for Columbia to restore abortion access to its students. Every single one of those groups won. Students demanded change in their communities and the people in charge listened. We're getting a taste of the spirit of '68.
Of course, Columbia's resident student activists differ from the 1968 protesters in a lot of important ways. To my knowledge, not a single one of them has advocated violent resistance. I'm the first to say that administrators at Columbia aren't bad people, but they're caught up in a moribund bureaucracy that moves slowly and makes them deaf to students' concerns. Change on campus requires negotiating in good faith, and activism is ultimately about getting student voices heard and valued at the table. That's never going to happen unless students raise their voices in unison. Right now, the Dems are fighting for transparency around the adjudication of sexual assault and rape cases at Columbia. Last semester, six students were found guilty of rape at Yale. Four were given written reprimands, one had to attend gender sensitivity training, and one got disciplinary probation. These slap-on-the-wrist punishments are widespread and atrocious, and we need to make sure they're not happening here. Over 750 people have signed our petition asking for anonymous, aggregated statistics that give us details about how our policy on sexual assault is being administered, and the campaign has been endorsed by Spectator's editorial board, Columbia Queer Alliance, the International Socialist Organization at Columbia, the Columbia University College Republicans, the Muslim Students Association, and many others. We have had virtually universal support, but when we first met with administrators, the first thing they said was that they hadn't realized that students were concerned.
The fact is that students won't be heard unless they become active—whether it's by protesting on campus, fighting for immigration reform off-campus, or just signing a petition. This is our country, our campus, and our community. As much as we may love Columbia, nearly everyone has concerns about sexual violence, mental health, or a hundred other aspects of campus life. United, students can, have, and will change Columbia if we make our voices heard.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science. She is the president of the Columbia University College Democrats.
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