A Year of Student Voice

Amherst is often called apolitical. Unlike our counterparts at Wesleyan, Middlebury or Swarthmore, Amherst students are seen as far too busy with academics to engage with the world outside the Pioneer Valley. Our heads are in the clouds discussing Socrates in our “Friendship” seminar while students across the country collectively organize to fight against oppressive power structures and modern-day challenges to liberal ideals of equality. Yet, anyone who has been on this campus during the 2014-2015 academic year has seen student voice come alive in a new way to tackle truly meaningful issues on this campus and beyond.

Amherst students have marched for student rights, chalked for divestment and asserted our collective voice. Just this week, anyone in Frost could hear a small group of protesters echoing one another, demanding the right to in-state education for undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts. A collection of Five College students marched from our campus to UMass in order to talk to the UMass president.

This year, Amherst students have responded to national issues and stood up for their beliefs in an unprecedentedly inspirational way. A majority of students walked out of their classes to shout collectively “Hands up, don’t shoot” in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. The Black Lives Matter campaign has been successful in inspiring conversations about the significance of race on this campus — an issue largely overlooked by many students. Although this semester’s Day of Dialogue received mixed reviews, it did at least work to further this mission, pushing us to have uncomfortable conversations and question our own identities.

This year, Amherst students have created change and conversation around campus on international issues. A group of students continued to lobby the board of trustees to divest from coal and push for a greater focus on environmental sustainability on campus. In response to this student push, the board of trustees made a pledge to increase the college’s commitment to sustainability. Although opinions about the board’s statement are divided, and not all activists are satisfied, the divestment campaign has shown that student voices can have a significant impact.

Several controversial protests on campus also showed the continuing vitality of student voices. Students walked out of a talk by climate change denier Patrick Moore. A group devoted to Palestinian rights and freedom protested a Hillel event in an effort to spark conversation around Israel’s activities in the occupied territories. The protest of the Son of Hamas speaker also showed student awareness and voice on a crucial issue of human rights. Whatever your opinion on the issues being discussed, it’s heartening to see that student activism is seeing a resurgence on campus.

Even on Amherst-related issues, students have organized and rallied far more than last year. Students have fiercely debated neighborhoods and social clubs, a conversation that has been fruitful and exciting as current students try to establish a richer campus culture for future generations. The recent termination of the international Spanish teaching assistants has inspired a collective protest and petition campaign that has garnered hundreds of signatures.

We have the potential to move beyond the stereotypical apolitical and apathetic Amherst of the past, but this year was only the first step. It takes consistent, conscientious effort to build a campus where student voice is alive and well. We may have cracked the Amherst bubble this year, but it is only through continued engagement with other students on important issues beyond the academic that we can truly break it.