Kids these days: How involved is this generation?

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, an idea inspired by a speech that President John F. Kennedy gave on the steps of the Michigan Union. The speech helped usher in an era of unprecedented activism at the University of Michigan. By the end of the ’60s, the campus was on fire with high-profile, widely attended protests. Students rallied against the Vietnam War, and for women’s and Civil Rights. For better or worse, that generation is still known for its activism—and there’s a parallel perception that today’s U-M students are less socially conscious than their predecessors. But as the university celebrates the anniversary of JFK’s speech, it’s appropriate to ask: are today’s students apathetic or activist? Involved or self-involved?David Schoem, director of the Michigan Community Scholars Program, a “living/learning” program that encourages community service, who was an activist during the late sixties at U-M, said his generation was actually “more narcissistic” by putting “ourselves front and center and rebelling against our parents.” By contrast, he says, “I see in today’s students a real commitment to, and sense of responsibility for, the rest of society. They’re thinking beyond themselves.” The numbers agree: this is an engaged generation. Peace Corps involvement, for instance, remains steady and high. Over the past half-century, at least 2,331 U-M alumni have served in the Peace Corps, the fourth-highest total of any university. And today there are more than 250 organizations on campus devoted to service and social action. A 2008 U-M survey of 1,673 seniors found that 83% reported significant community service experiences, while more than two-thirds of the class participated in a service project sponsored by the U-M or one of its clubs or student organizations. “I was amazed” at the involvement, says Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning who for the past five years was faculty director of The Ginsberg Center, which supports student learning through community service. “They work passionately on causes ranging from addressing the genocide in Darfur, to getting the university to reject purchasing clothing from international sweat shops, to increasing healthy eating habits in Ypsilanti, Michigan.”Alan Haber, who often found himself at odds with the administration as the founder of Students for a Democratic Society in 1960, is impressed with this generation of students, many of whom he worked with during the U.S. Social Forum meetings, a conference for activists held in Detroit this past June. At 74, Haber looks every bit the aging peace activist, with a thick gray beard, flannel shirt, worn pants and battered work boots. When he was at U-M, activists represented only “a tiny fragment of the student body,” while today there are a far larger number campaigning for change, he says. Cassie Peabody is one of them. A 20-year-old junior, she rattles off 10 different organizations she’s a member of, everything from peace and social justice to workers rights groups. She points to the annual “Festifall” held this past September, when the diag was teeming with “amazing energy” from the many student groups that gathered to kick off a year of community service. “There is always a critique, that more people should be involved and [our generation] does not take action because we are not directly affected by many of the problems of the world.” But she says, “I believe there is an active, engaged, vibrant community of students that care about something and are acting on that.” Or take Anne West, a 22-year-old senior from Marquette, Michigan. Last year, she studied abroad in Thailand, living with villagers who were fighting pollution from gold mines and the pressures of industrialized farming. Her roommates, meantime, are living examples of the breadth and diversity of campus activism. One volunteered with the homeless center in Ann Arbor; another interned with the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice; one was on a fellowship with the Friends of Detroit Neighborhood Center and another organized the annual blood battle on campus. The activism is “hard to keep track of because it happens in so many forms,” says West.

A different world

One reason students might seem less involved is because their work is less visible. While the draft and the Vietnam War were a rallying cry in the sixties and the seventies, inspiring regular marches, sit-ins and other public displays, there’s a notable absence of student protests against the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Elimination of the draft is one likely reason. “To a great many of our students, these wars are invisible and they feel untouched by them,” says Schoem. “Sadly, we’ve become so accustomed to U.S. military involvement, many students don’t know a time when that wasn’t the norm,” says Dave Waterhouse, director of student initiatives for The Ginsberg Center. When there have been protests, they’ve often been targeted at the university itself. At the turn of the millennium, for instance, the campus saw fierce protests by Native Americans challenging what they see as lack of university response to Michigamua, a secret society that used Native American artifacts as part of its proceedings, and in ways widely seen as mocking. (The group was re-established as an open honor society called the Order of Angell and abandoned its former practices.) In 2008, a coalition of American Indian tribes located in Michigan also accused the university of not complying with federal law that requires museums to repatriate Native American human remains and cultural items to affiliated tribes. Alys Alley, co-chair of the Native American Student Association, says many of the remains held by the museum are the ancestors of Native American students on campus. U-M says it has always complied with the law: it returned all remains that have known provenance and is working to properly return the rest. But Alley says the university took too long to get that done (though she’s pleased it’s now happening). The situation “has caused a lot of pain for the Native America community, as we have struggled to see our ancestors return home for many years,” she says. She hopes to see the remains returned to “begin the healing process.”Students have also protested U-M ties to companies like Coca-Cola and Nike that have been accused of worker exploitation. “U-M is less responsive or encouraging of activism than they would like you to think,” said Jody Schecter, a 21-year-old senior and member of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality (SOLE), which has staged sit-ins and other protests. Blasé Kearney, a 23-year-old Michigan Law School student who was active in SOLE as an undergraduate, accuses the university of being a “silent player, someone who is complicit in exploitation.” (U-M credits student activists for pushing for worker rights; the university has also been recognized by international labor leaders for its labor-rights policies.)

Helping hands

If there’s any group that embodies the difference between the Vietnam era and today, it is probably the Student Veterans Association, a student group founded by Derek Blumke, who enrolled in U-M after serving in Afghanistan. The SVA helps veterans survive and thrive at U-M, offering assistance with everything from applying (not so easy when you’re in a war zone) to adjusting to life as a civilian among young students who can’t understand what they’ve been through.

The group is probably one of the most admired on campus, and the university administration has gone out of its way to offer support and resources to it and individual veterans. Blumke’s inspiration, meanwhile, has gone national, with similar groups forming on campuses across the US. And just last week, President Obama in a speech hailed Blumke’s work. The differences between the efforts of groups like Student Veterans Association and the mass movements of the past are numerous and instructive. Many of today’s organizations support and advocate for particular groups, from veterans, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community and the like. Still other groups offer one-on-one help for people in need, from the homeless to the imprisoned, from tutoring children to assisting the elderly and sick. A sometimes-overlooked source of civic engagement is the Greek system. Marisa Frink, a 22-year-old senior and member of the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma, runs the Greek Philanthropic Organization. She says the Greek system is “dedicated to improving life in the Ann Arbor area.” Individual chapters all run philanthropy projects, and Frink organizes at least one service project every month—for students within and outside the Greek system—with organizations that include Mott’s Children’s Hospital, Food Gatherer’s and Ronald McDonald House. None of these efforts are as visible as a march down South University St., but the breadth and depth of student involvement in such community service makes at least as much of a difference.

Sponsoring service

Schoem says unlike their radical predecessors, who challenged authority, students today are working within existing structures to build collaborative relationships. “This generation isn’t rebelling. They’re looking to be partners,” he says.That may be the biggest difference of all between then and now. Today’s students are—with some exceptions of course—working to change the system from within, to embed their values ever deeper into cultural institutions.And if the university is sometimes the target of student protests, it’s also become the students’ partner, offering an infrastructure that helps students get involved in service projects and also teaches them the skills they need to keep it up for life. Evans Young, assistant director at the Center for African American Studies, says the university is providing “more attention to student involvement and engagement,” including learning outside the classroom, in direct response to what students demand. He said that “the university has changed, and we’re highly supportive” of activism and social change.This past January, for example, the School of Social Work launched a community action social change undergraduate minor which has attracted 50 students from such diverse areas as theater and American Culture. The Michigan Community Scholars Program provides a residential learning experience for freshmen and sophomores who take classes together and then participate in service projects within the community. Currently, 150 students are enrolled. In the end, no generalization about an entire generation can ever be completely accurate. But one thing is clear about today’s students: they’re as involved as any young people ever have been in working to improve their world. And as many differences as there might be between them and their radical predecessors, it’s also true that students today have learned from, and been inspired by, the lessons of the past.

What do you think? Are students politically and socially engaged these days? How does their activism compare to that of the past? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments section below.


  1. Eser Belding - 1980

    I wonder to what extent the acceptance criteria of universities including community service and leadership qualifications of the applicants has contributed to this change


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