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    The New Student Activists

    Christian college students are engaging controversial issues and taking stands to pursue justice.

    Alicia Cohn

    Student activistsHistory shows that the college campus is an incubator for student activism, ranging from staging protests or demonstrations to sharing an op-ed or call-to-action speech. Today’s college students are courted by presidential campaigns and organizations ranging from Planned Parenthood to the NRA. Students are often at the forefront of widespread movements and hot-button conversations like Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights.

    If college is a friendly environment for forming an argument or taking a stand, then Christian college students have perhaps even more reason than their peers to take action based on passionately-held beliefs. The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), an association of more than 170 higher education institutions affiliated with a wide range of denominations around the world, engages student interest in social justice and activism by sponsoring days of action and encouraging member institutions to consider interest in social activism in recruiting strategies. In the past, the CCCU has partnered with groups like World Vision and The One Campaign to encourage member campuses and the thousands of students they represent to participate in campaigns taking a stand on public policy related to poverty and AIDS. More recently, the association’s attempt to navigate student and member institution interest in topics like same-sex marriage—and subsequent protests or withdrawal by some members—has highlighted the tension that often results from mixing the dedicated pursuit of a Christ-centered life with active engagement in cultural issues. Many of the college students at Christian higher education institutions who are pursuing activist interests are also learning how to navigate that tension firsthand.

    Reaching Beyond Campus

    When Maria DeFosse, now a junior, chose to attend Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, she said it was in part because she wanted to make a difference on campus. “My main goal is to raise awareness for the fact that God’s creation is everywhere, and it’s our job as Christians to take care of it,” she says. “It’s more our job than anyone else’s to take care of creation. I feel that’s been taken out of the Christian circle and become a political issue.”

    As a freshman, she joined an on-campus club that she now leads, called Students for Stewardship. She helped the environment-oriented group expand its cooperation with other groups and enact visible change on campus. DeFosse’s activism provides a foundation for her plan to find work at an environmental organization after graduation.

    “People at the top really want students to be involved,” says DeFosse. In response to her club’s advocacy, campus leadership has supported adding recycling options to new dorms, allowing Goodwill to set up pods on campus when students are cleaning out housing at the end of the semester, setting up a farmer’s market on campus, and making it easy for the club to teach sports teams what they can recycle during clean-up after games.

    “I am not worried [about campus approval],” DeFosse says. “I know there is support.”

    DeFosse’s sense that campus leadership supports the students in developing passion and taking action for a cause on campus is echoed by students at many other Christian schools. Community service and volunteer opportunities are built into the structure of most Christian universities, but differences between the types of school-sponsored activities are often influenced by the school’s church affiliation, location, and philosophy.

    At North Park University in urban Chicago, students are encouraged to reach beyond campus, engage causes endemic to their local community, and learn about the patience and dedication it takes to pursue justice or effect change through public policy.