Why Political Engagement Is Essential for Student Activists

Student activists must understand voting, legislation, and other processes to be effective advocates. Learn why social justice starts with political engagement.
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  • There is a rich history of political activism on U.S. campuses.
  • Politics affect many aspects of a student's life, and proper advocacy requires an awareness of these effects.
  • Initiatives on campus can help the student population interact with and internalize politics.
  • Student activists shape the next generation's political discourse.

Politics and legislation are integral parts of society that affect students' lives. Though these processes may seem unrelated to the daily functioning of some people, the policies created by lawmakers control nearly every aspect of society, including person-to-person interactions, individual wellbeing, and more. Students interested in advocating for others and making change at their institutions must be aware of how the political landscape determines the trajectory of their lives on and off campus.

The History of Political Activism on Campus

Higher education institutions often foster activism related to social and political causes. From Kent State's anti-war demonstrations to the first Take Back the Night march in the U.S. at the University of Southern Florida, politics are no stranger to universities.

Some of the most outstanding examples of widespread activism on campuses occurred during the civil rights movement when students fervently spoke out against Jim Crow laws and other racist legislation. In later years, women's liberation became a significant movement for students to engage in, leading to the establishment of Title IX laws that counteracted sexist policies inherent to the admissions process and student experience.

Many modern students are still heavily involved in political activism, campaigning for politicians, demonstrating for and protesting against policies, and running voter drives on campus and within the local community. The 2020 election season was a particularly busy time for political discourse at universities, and the polarizing nature of the election spurred ample student activism, especially involving voting.

There are many campuses known for their history of politically involved students. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Missouri, and Columbia University are just a few institutions that continue the tradition of activism today.

Why Politics Are Important to Student Activism

Many students' first time engaging critically with political discourse occurs after they have started attending college. However, students like Elias Nikitchyuk — a senior college student and creative media major at Champlain College — were exposed to many political issues before college.

"I am a queer, second-generation Ukrainian-American raised in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. My freshman year of high school, a neighbor shot and killed 20 children and six educators in my hometown's elementary school," Nikitchyuk shared. "I had seen first-hand the devastating effect of America's toxic and complex relationships with firearms, and I decided to get involved in ways to prevent more gun violence on local and national levels. In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, Ukraine, the land where my father was born and raised. Since then, I have also been active in efforts to support the sovereignty of Ukraine and preserve Ukrainian culture."

Because issues like these permeate their educational experiences, students can see the tangible effects of politics on their lives — financially, medically, and socially — as they watch policies unfold in real time. Understanding how politics affect their lives, even through the prism of campus lie, can contribute to students becoming activists.

An important first step for many student activists is understanding how their institutions form their policies around government legislation. Title VI, Title IX, and other national compliance requirements impacting higher education institutions dictate the funding colleges are eligible for, as well as their accreditation and legal responsibilities. Student activism requires an understanding of the role politics play on campus to create policies like these.

"Political engagement is essential to the work of student activists because government is the institutional framework we have established to represent the interests of citizens. If student activists and other individuals do not get involved, political corruption will thrive and citizens will lose their freedoms. On-campus and grassroots organizing is essential in making sure your community's ideals are represented."

— Elias Nikitchyuk, senior college student and creative media major at Champlain College

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Outside of university compliance, politics can affect the well-being of students themselves. Many learners are impacted firsthand by legislation affecting their personhood and quality of life, including issues related to the gender pay gap and class inequality. Student activists must understand these laws to effectively advocate for themselves, the student population, and their communities.

How Student Activists Can Engage in the Political Process

For many students, the first step to creating political change is advocating for social justice. Raising awareness of injustice is key to this process.

"Make it be known that someone on campus cares about those issues. Start conversations about it in places like class, the dining hall, or the common room. These conversations will spark interest and connect others that also want to get involved and you'll be able to establish a task force to get initiatives going," urged Nikitchyuk.

Student activists can rally around political causes by organizing demonstrations and programs similar to those found on other campuses. For example, initiatives like Take Back the Night have become popular to raise awareness around gender-based violence, sexual assault, and inequality. Taking advantage of preexisting movements is a great way to start the engagement process, helping other students tune into the social current.

Voting rights are another cause that student activists should have toward the top of their agenda. The youth vote is often a topic of conversation in American politics. As younger people gain more social awareness, they can bring that awareness to the polls.

Political awareness in young voters will likely dictate their voting behaviors and engagement in the future. Student activists play an essential role in setting the tone for their generation's politics. Voter registration drives are also a way to extend political engagement throughout the local community.


Movements or campaigns categorized as "student" activism — though this phrasing is sometimes used to try and belittle the beliefs of younger adults — can be a way to politically galvanize the next generation. Student activists play a large part in shaping the values of their peers and others across the country. When they embrace political engagement, they prepare themselves to be comprehensive advocates for the rest of the student population and their communities.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Elias Nikitchyuk

Elias Nikitchyuk

Elias Nikitchyuk is a senior creative media student at Champlain College. Since a mass shooting in his hometown in 2012, he's used his fiery passion to be an activist for gun violence prevention — whether it be through art, lobbying, or organizing.

Raised in a Ukrainian-American home, he spoke a mixture of Ukrainian, Russian, and English from a young age. He has a great respect for his Ukrainian heritage and practices bandura — the traditional Ukrainian folk instrument with 55 strings — with other members of the Ukrainian diaspora in North America. Nikitchyuk has a vision of a safer, more understanding world. He believes he can help create this world using the power of art and digital media.

Feature Image: Westend61 / Westend61 / Getty Images