The Evolution of Campus Activism During COVID-19
Published on February 24, 2021
As the pandemic all but decimates traditional campus activism efforts, students are finding new ways to make their voices heard.
Each year there seems to be at least a few social movements at my school, Brigham Young University. But this past year, the campus has been nearly silent. Though many students like myself rarely go to campus these days due to COVID-19, the buildings and walkways feel lifeless for another reason as well — no posters, banners, or signs of student activities taking place.
With the temporary prohibition of rallies, panels, protests, and gatherings, student activism has drastically changed on my college campus, as well as on many other campuses, during the pandemic.
Remote Learning Hampers Campus Activism
Every year, BYU hosts numerous homecoming activities, orientations, and other student-life activities to create a cohesive campus community. This past year, however, all of these events were extremely limited or canceled due to the pandemic.
With remote classes restricting my ability to develop a sense of camaraderie with my peers, I feel very disconnected. I only see friends and classmates in their Zoom windows when we try to facilitate discussions. More often, though, I just sit and listen to professors' lectures.
This situation, though necessary because of the pandemic, is leaving students like me feeling isolated and unable to connect with their peers. The lack of connection not only impacts students' mental health but also diminishes quality discussions about causes that matter.
With remote classes restricting my ability to develop a sense of camaraderie with my peers, I feel very disconnected. I only see friends and classmates in their Zoom windows.
Finding people with similar thoughts and ideas is how students become passionate and create social and political campaigns. But with gatherings strongly discouraged, students simply aren't connecting like they used to.
While some students are still trying to make a difference, these efforts look different than they did in the past. Instead of gathering on campus, students are holding discussions through video calls and social media.
It takes a lot of courage to post a video of yourself and your opinions. Still, more and more students are resorting to talking to their friends through screens and sharing what they think. It's hard to feel like you're making a difference when you can't see the impact you're having, but students at BYU and other institutions are finding unique ways to make a difference.
On-Campus Events Help Fuel Student Movements
Last year, right before the pandemic closed the BYU campus, I watched a movement grow from Twitter threads to marches outside the student center. Students on Twitter and other social platforms were calling for change regarding LGBTQ+ rights. I saw all the comments and shares these posts got, yet none persuaded campus administrators to take action.
It wasn't until a group of students scheduled a march to be held outside the student center that BYU administrators finally responded. The march started with a small group, but as passersby read the signs, heard the music, and watched students share their voices, it transformed into a powerful movement. Protestors met up daily for a week until school administrators eventually released a statement addressing the issues students had raised.
It's one thing to chime in with your two cents online. But seeing what a movement is creating in person can help a cause grow significantly. Similarly, it's easy to ignore a few voices and hashtags on social media, but when you see a group of hundreds of students marching on campus, you feel compelled to listen to them — and perhaps even participate.
The march at BYU started with a small group, but as passersby read the signs, heard the music, and watched students share their voices, it transformed into a powerful movement.
Students figured this out long ago and have seen how gathering on campus has fueled causes over the years.
In a similar event in 2019, a cause started with an Instagram account posting stories calling for changes to BYU's honor code. The posts got a lot of engagement but not much else. Once students started talking about the movement with their friends and peers, however, it quickly grew.
I actually heard about the Instagram account from a friend while we were in class. I probably wouldn't have found it myself without someone mentioning it to me. The movement really took off when students saw others representing it on campus. Online channels are a great resource for disseminating information, but it's often through talking and being with people that student causes truly flourish.
Students Test Out New Ways to Promote Causes
Even though students can't gather and share ideas like they used to due to the coronavirus, many still feel passionate about certain causes. My campus has been nearly devoid of student activism in the past year, but I've witnessed some students get creative.
Recently, I worked with a group of communication students at BYU to create a campaign encouraging students to wear masks. Using a website, social media posts, advertisements, and billboards throughout the city, we hoped to inspire students to join the cause. In the end, several thousand students joined. It was a fun, creative experience that taught me a lot about finding other avenues for promoting a cause.
The BYU campus has been nearly devoid of student activism in the past year, but I’ve witnessed some students get creative.
The ban on marches and rallies means students must find alternative ways to make a difference. During last summer's Black Lives Matter protests, I heard and watched students drive in front of my apartment for hours. They flaunted signs and shouted out their windows but had to stay in their cars due to social distancing measures.
Though it wasn't quite the same as a campus event, the car rally was still noticeable — and, more importantly, these students' voices were heard. Even if you can't form a group on campus, you can still take to the streets.
Students Will Always Find a Way to Share Their Voice
While this academic year may feel as though it's been full of political and social tension, my college campus is quieter than it's been in years. The pandemic has barred student gatherings and made many feel isolated, forcing students to look for new ways to make their voices heard.
Rather than casually sharing opinions in class or at lunch, student activists today must rely on other tools and resources, such as social media and video meetings.
When the pandemic finally ends, college students will likely want to rally together because of the unity and camaraderie movements bring. But this period may also change and expand the way students ultimately engage in social causes.
Feature Image: Octavio Jones / Stringer / Getty Images