Last year, while I was preparing for finals, some of my French fellow classmates were taking to the streets, protesting against government action that would loosen the restrictions on how universities managed their budget and resources. People feared a possible step toward the privatization of higher education which would threaten the sacred principle of equality of access to education. In France, the state-owned universities are criticized to be archaic and are often compared with academic factories which would deliver thousands of students into an uncertain job market. Although, like my classmates, I was against this reform, rather than protesting I kept up with the issue by reading and commenting on Web articles, especially ones written by foreign (non-French) media.
My impression of Northwestern was that it was a liberal campus where student groups were thriving. Walking down Sheridan Road, I kept my head down, dazed by the numbers of posters promoting events on campus taped to the ground. Actually, I was relieved not to be harassed by students handing out fliers like they do at my home university in Paris, Sciences Po. In France, student government candidates affiliate themselves with a political party, and students vote based on their preference, even if the other ticket may propose a better platform. After a few months spent at Northwestern I realized that student government here is not politicized.
I’m a political junkie. I consume political news as fast as I eat Freedom fries. My political opinions fluctuate depending what is at stake. So, when the ASG elections started up, I got excited. There was going to be some political action. Sometimes I’ve been frustrated not engaging in political debates during my time at Northwestern. I was willing to debate the strengths and weaknesses of ASG candidates, but it was only in vain. Students at Northwestern seemed too disillusioned with ASG to debate.
I’ve been thinking of the way I should interpret what seems like, with my French bias, political indifference. Is Northwestern University affected by its students’ apathy?
Yet, I do not want you to believe that all French students are politicized or active in student government. They also struggle to increase voter turnout by communicating better with students. For me, the ASG campaign was reduced to a chalking war. Lack of communication of candidates’ programs left me feeling like we were just voting for the names we saw on the ground. This does not reflect well on what was at stake, namely students’ power to shape policy
The education systems in France and the United States feed into the differences in approach to student activism between my two schools. At big universities in France, students often feel like they are just a simple ID number, a picture on a teacher’s sheet. In that case, protesting is also a means of social recognition, an acknowledgment of their presence. At a private university like Northwestern, students seem to take advantage of a more intimate relationship with the faculty. In America, education is a transaction between administration and students, which explains why they feel they have more of a voice.
Student activism means getting students mobilized around ideas, conflicts or interests. It shapes a public debate. In this respect, the Living Wage campaign succeeded in arousing students’ interest where the ASG campaigns fell short. They managed to make a movement out of an idea. Student activism can be relevant by itself, not being constrained by any political movement or organization. Students should decide to get involved on campus to defend their interests because they care about them. Walking with the Living Wage protesters, I felt that I was part of Northwestern University. I was proud. It can be hard to connect 8000 students to each other, knowing that Northwestern University is a social and cultural microcosm, and therefore broken up into smaller factions. Some things, like the Living Wage campaign, can bridge that distance and rather than being just an athlete, a fraternity brother or a theater major, you’re a Northwestern student. Students should take a hint, and embrace the opportunity to make student government one of those things as well.