University Must Support Student Activists

Hundreds stood between O’Neill Library and Gasson Hall last week in protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order barring immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. A few days ago, several dozen students crowded into a single Mod to write letters to their representatives. Two weeks prior, over one hundred Boston College students traveled to Boston Common or Washington, D.C. to participate in the Women’s March. And last semester, the green space in the middle of campus was regularly dotted with groups of students rallying, shouting, and protesting in opposition of Trump’s deeply conservative agenda.

In the Undergraduate Government of Boston College, two students sponsored a bill in an emergency meeting to call for resources for students affected by the travel ban. There’s been, at least anecdotally, an uptick in the number of angry students who are ready to do something more. Students who may have never paid attention are now picking up signs.

Aneeb Sheikh, MCAS ’20, immigrated from Pakistan to Dallas last August. He was one of the students who spoke at last week’s rally against the Trump administration’s broad immigration ban. He also co-sponsored the UGBC bill to provide resources to affected students. “[Trump] has forced us out of our comfort zones and brought all of us here … because we will not allow our country to go down this path,” he said at the rally.

A few days prior to this, in a rare gesture, University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. sent an email to the BC community two days after the executive order was signed. In the email—the first he has sent to the community since May 2014—he condemned the order and said that it conflicts with the Judeo-Christian faith tradition, and the roots of the University. Even Leahy has been forced out of his comfort zone.

In keeping with a larger, national theme from liberal citizens, students have made it clear that they intend to continue to fight Trump’s directives. This kind of activism pushes many out of their comfort zones, as Sheikh pointed out. But it is nearly impossible for a student activist to consistently stay out of his or her comfort zone for the next few years—there is school work, clubs, and the overwhelming nature of the U.S. government.

Since September, visits to University Counseling Services (UCS) have spiked about 20 percent from past years. Over 1,300 students have visited this academic year. This jump, explained director Craig Burns, can partially be explained by the two full-time staff members that were added last year. With more staff members, UCS can handle more appointments. He also said that the uptick could be due to a heightened environment of tension and anxiety. Without specifically naming names, this could mean the political atmosphere (though, when asked if the problems stem from the inauguration and executive order, Burns did say it is too soon to tell). Too soon to tell or not, this isn’t a phenomenon limited to BC’s campus, with Time reporting Trump-related problems in psychotherapy.

A counseling center might jump at the opportunity to hold counseling sessions for students who lead the University’s political efforts. There are, after all, a few hundred students at BC who are seen over and over at similar events. Though this band of students has likely gained many converts since the election, it still tends to be the same people organizing protests, attending them, and hosting follow-up conversations. They should have institutional support, and support from more students, so that the burden of both activism and self-care doesn’t fall upon one singularly stressed-out student.

But UCS is notoriously short-staffed. Even after the addition of two new faculty members, word-of-mouth reports say that it takes weeks to get an appointment. So that means other University departments should assume some of the responsibility Leahy lays out in his letter to the community: responsibility to “put ourselves at the service of the neediest,” in the words of Pope Francis.

Many students are doing this, with protests, letters, and calls. But it’s hard to do these things without greater institutional support. The letter from BC’s president was a start, and the support from Dean of Students Thomas Mogan to student activists organizing protests is essential, although those protests must be registered, a requirement that rankles some. Several members of Eradicate Boston College Racism recently received sanctions for participating in unregistered protests. Not for the first time, members of the University’s activist community and members of the administration seem to be at loggerheads. But this conflict could, as one member of the group suggested, give rise to a wider free-speech policy that would open up protest opportunities, like the one orchestrated but not finalized by former UGBC president Thomas Napoli, BC ’16. The University can always do better. And students who have not yet gotten involved, but are critical of current events, should jump out of their own comfort zones so that the burden of the masses does not lie upon the backs of a few.

In the epilogue to civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light, she wrote, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The Office of Health Promotion agrees: last October, they presented the Resilience Project to encourage students to take care of themselves and manage stress. A good start—but to encourage student activists, and to act with the intent laid out in Leahy’s letter, the entire institution must help.

The Office of Residential Life ought to provide summer housing and legal resources for students affected by Trump’s ban, or offer other constructive solutions for the causes students protest. In addition to the two previous statements he has signed from Pomona College and the Association for Catholic Colleges and Universities, Leahy should also join the other 27 Jesuit universities who have signed the statement from the Association of Jesuit College of Universities. Students and professors need to lean into discussions of what this new age of governance means. UCS could effectively direct its resources into holding group panels on the individual effects of protest. Student Affairs could advise on ways for students to stay both politically active and also sane.

Just three weeks into the Trump administration, and hundreds of students have already participated in protests. This is not a normal presidency, and BC students know it. They shouldn’t have to act alone.

Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that BC is the only Jesuit university that did not sign on to be a sanctuary campus. This statement was misleading. BC was the only Jesuit university that did not sign a statement from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, which pledges to promote retention of DACA, but did join many universities in signing statements from Pomona College and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, which pledges to support students protected under DACA.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor

About Carolyn Freeman 155 Articles
Carolyn Freeman is the Editor-in-Chief for The Heights. You can follow her on Twitter at @carolynrfreeman. She drinks her coffee iced with chocolate soy milk.