Exploring How Student Activists Experience Marginality and Mattering during Interactions with Student Affairs Professionals

By Rosati, Carli; Nguyen, David J. et al. | College Student Affairs Journal, Fall 2019 | Go to article overview

Exploring How Student Activists Experience Marginality and Mattering during Interactions with Student Affairs Professionals


Rosati, Carli, Nguyen, David J., Troyer, Rose, Tran, Quan, Graman, Zachary, Brenckle, Joseph, College Student Affairs Journal


Throughout the history of U.S. colleges and universities, students have turned to activism as a way to advance different social, political, or equity agendas (Broadhurst, 2014; Rhoads, 2016; Thelin, 2004). Despite this continued presence, some student affairs professionals continue to view activists as disrupting campus equilibrium or "detrimental to campus order and tranquility" (Astin, 1993, p. 48). Although these student activists are meeting a core aim of postsecondary education, which is to become civically engaged, they often are viewed and marginalized as troublemakers and chastised for raising awareness to persistent inequities (Ropers-Huilman, Carwile, & Barnett, 2005).

Previous research on student activism tends to focus on engagement and activism outcomes (Astin, 1993; Rhoads, 1998; Thelin, 2004). In addition, several researchers have documented how activism matters for fostering student development aims (Broadhurt, 2014), yet, activists often perceive student affairs professionals as detrimental to their advancement efforts (Ropers-Huilman et al., 2005). Findings from several studies have pointed to a need for better understanding the needs of student activists and student affairs professionals, rather than struggle over decision-making (Rhoads, 1998, 2016; Ropers Huilman et al., 2005). For example, Hamrick (1998) suggested that student activists offer "alternate opinions, conclusions, and judgements" that can enrich discourse and dialogue while advocating for specific causes (p. 457). Despite their efforts in shaping campus policy, much of the decision making is left to campus administrators and student affairs professionals (Barnett, Ropers-Huilman, & Aaron 2008; Ropers-Huilman, et al., 2005). Barnett and colleagues (2008) argued that student activists attempt to influence student affairs professionals in gaining support for campus change; however, they lack their power in shifting policy. Lacking decision-making and power can lead to activists lacking a sense of mattering when interacting with student affairs professionals that cannot help them bring about the change desired. More empirical insight is needed to examine the role of interactions between student activists and higher education administrators. Because more students arriving on college campuses are interested in engaging in activism than ever before (Higher Education Research Institute, 2016), this study explores the marginality and mattering experiences of student activists when engaging with student affairs professionals.

Background

Since the creation of U.S. higher education institutions, activism has been a fixture for students to express malcontent with campus and societal issues (Broadhurst, 2014; Rhoads, 1998; Thelin, 2004). Within the U.S., youth populations are often portrayed as politically disengaged, which is reflected in low voter turnout at polling stations. Nevertheless many college students enrolled in higher education institutions remain civicly active across campuses and communities (Wong, 2015). For example, more than 160 protests took place across U.S. higher education institutions during Fall 2014 (Wong, 2015). Data from the 2015 Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey indicated that more than 8.5 percent of 141,189 incoming first-year students planned to participate in student protests while in college (Higher Education Research Institute, 2016, para. 4). The 8.5 percent represents an annual increase of nearly 3 percent from the 2014 installment. In short, colleges and universities remain a "natural incubator for protest" (Weiland, Guzman, & O'Meara, 2013, p. 7). As more and more students engage in activism, student affairs professionals must explore ways to serve and support these students.

The reasons why students become involved in activism vary. Several researchers have found student activism promotes student engagement (Astin, 1993; Friedman & Ayres, 2013; Hoffman & Mitchell, 2016; Rhoads, Saenz & Carducci, 2005) and stu- dent development (Biddix, 2014; Biddix, Somers, & Polman, 2009; Cabrera, Matias, & Montoya, 2017; Kezar, 2010; Pascarella, Salisbury, Martin, & Blaich, 2012). …

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