Minority Student Activists Move to Forefront in Protests of Higher Education Budget Cuts

Eric Gorski, Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2010

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Cheng [Jesse Cheng, a third-year Asian-American studies major at the University of California, Irvine] is part of a growing movement of minority students rallying around a new cause–fighting a budget crisis that’s undermining access to higher education at a time when students of color have become a stronger demographic force.

“For a lot of students of color, this is our dream and our hope–to get to college,” said Cheng, who is about to start a one-year term representing students from all 10 University of California campuses on the system’s board of regents. “We never thought we’d make it and we’re here. And we’re not going to give it up so easily.”

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But a visit to a developing activist hotspot like UC-Irvine–where tensions have run high this year over everything from student tuition hikes to gender-neutral bathrooms and Middle East politics–illustrate the challenges involved.

The increased diversity of students, many of them the first in their families to attend college, is both a strength and a liability. Splits have emerged over tactics and agendas, making coalition-building more challenging than ever.

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At 27,000-student UC-Irvine, the scene includes a Pakistani-American working behind the scenes on budget issues as her own financial aid disappears, a Filipino-American struggling to shake fellow Asian students from political apathy and a gay African-American activist who thinks the focus on student fees obscures larger problems like the evils of capitalism.

The fact that students of color are at the forefront of campus protests marks a significant shift, said Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York who has studied student activism.

“In the past, minorities have tended to provide leadership for the minority protests,” Levine said. “Now they’ve moved to center stage. They’re leading the protests.”

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About 1,000 people, a big crowd for a campus often maligned as apathetic, crowded onto the steps and filled an area between two flagpoles on March 4, a national day of college student demonstrations against tuition hikes and program cuts.

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The momentum building over budget problems, Johnston said, “speaks to the demographic transformation of the student body. In the 1960s, the average student was coming from a family of means, someone who was white, male, with a history of academic achievement in the family. In 2010, none of those things are as likely.”

Johnston said the combination of students of lesser means taking on greater loans and American public higher education buckling under diminished state support and recession is a recipe for greater student engagement.

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“It’s more than just fighting for what’s morally right,” said Sanchez, who has a Mexican father and Costa Rican mother and describes fighting for access to honors programs and Advanced Placement courses in high school. “It’s righting the wrongs of our own experiences, the stuff we’ve gone through, for our brothers and sisters and generations after.”

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At UC-Irvine, capturing students’ attention is another challenge shaped by cultural currents.

Many Asian and Asian-American students, who are by far the largest racial group on campus at 47 percent of the student body, come from more moderate to conservative families and shy from political action, said Justine Calma, who became involved in campus activism by co-chairing a Filipino student organization.

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