Emboldened Students in Trump's America

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College students across the nation are more involved in political activism than ever before, voicing their opinions against legislation that not only violates democratic principles but also fosters a hostile racial climate.

According to a 2016 study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, nearly one in 10 incoming freshman students anticipate some degree of involvement in activism throughout their college career. Data also revealed the highest percentage of students – 8.9 percent –who said they had a “very high chance” of participating in protests, which is a 2.9 percentage point increase from 2014.

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For young millennials, their involvement in marches and rallies are about much more than clever, handmade signs and rhythmic chants.

“Protests signify that even though we’re young, our ideas deserve a place in public discussion and that we are proving ourselves as the country’s next generation of leaders,” said Gianluca D’Elia, senior and News Editor of the Rider News at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

The right to assemble peacefully is symbolic of American values: liberty, equality and self-government. Protests, strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations have been the catalyst for change throughout American history.

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“America was founded on protesting,” said Ethan Gabrysz, student government representative at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, N.J.  “If you just remained subdued while what you believe in is being destroyed, are you actually living a life worth living?”

Many Americans embraced their right to protest following the contentious presidential election of 2016, which elected Donald J. Trump as the nation’s 45th president. With demonstrations sweeping the country, students at New Jersey colleges and universities joined the anti-Trump protests to stand against the then president-elect’s hardline rhetoric on hot-button issues such as immigration policies, travel bans targeted at Muslims and LGBTQ rights.

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“Like many other Americans, many of the students [at Rutgers University in Newark] were disappointed by the election of Donald Trump,” said Kimberly Tayeb, graduate of Rutgers Class of 2017 and current law school student at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

“The campus atmosphere was inspired and persistent during the #sanctuarycampus movement,” she continued. “Many of the students were fully aware and fearful of the ways in which the policies of incoming administration would affect their lives, as well as the lives of their friends and families.”

In the aftermath of the election, dubbed “The Mourning After,” some student leaders found themselves uncertain of how to respond given their positions on campus.

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“I have a different role from most other student leaders at Rider because I’m also a student journalist. My role as news editor of my college newspaper is to keep my community informed and bring their attention to things they may not always know about,” D’Elia said. 

“Though the profession's code of ethics urges journalists to not become activists, I think my role is to show students different angles of an issue, and then let them decide what to do with what they’ve heard,” he continued.

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Concerns about the efficacy of protests remain rampant in the divisive state of the country. Older generations dismiss their value, leaving the state of politics vulnerable to the luck of the draw. Millennials, the most educated generation in American history, crave a sort of liberal revolution and take issues into their own hands. 

“People are often wary about the status quo, yet they also believe, unfortunately, that their own civic participation, through voting, protesting, and other means, will not produce results, and therefore come to the conclusion that participating in protests is not worth their time and energy," Tayeb said.

Yet research from a joint study in 2011 conducted by Harvard University and Stockholm University suggests otherwise. After analyzing a series of protests, economists concluded that these movements do not fulfill their primary purpose of sending messages to lawmakers. However, protests proved to be an effective vehicle for change by stimulating the political drive among individuals who are otherwise dormant members of society.

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“Whether or not a protest has a direct effect on the issue, it still makes a difference, because there is an opportunity there to educate others and teach them something they didn’t know before,” said D’Elia.

As the tremors of the national political arena are felt across New Jersey, students continue to be inspired by their ability to make a difference.

“Millennials and college students are powerful in protests because they represent the leaders of the near future, so all eyes are on them to see what they are feeling and where they will take society,” said Tayeb.