Student activism is credited with bringing positive change for political, environmental, economic, and social causes on college campuses. It is recognized, however, that students’ time devoted to organizing and engaging for their cause while balancing coursework and college life can result in burnout. Long overlooked, Mason’s School of Integrative Studies Professor Cher Weixia Chen saw the need to identify and address the stress facing student activists.
Chen wanted to explore the conceptualizations, symptoms, and remedies associated with activists and identify intervention tools for improving their well-being. To attend to the needs of these community members, Chen applied for and received a 4-VA@Mason Collaborative Research Grant “Understanding & Supporting the Well-Being of College-Level Social Justice & Human Rights Advocates/Activists in the State of Virginia.” Chen’s colleagues included Graziella Pagliarulo McCarron, Assistant Professor, School of Integrative Studies, at Mason; Steve Grande, Director of the Office of Community Service-Learning at James Madison University (JMU); and Melody Porter, Director of Office of Community Engagement at the College of William & Mary (WM). They worked together to develop a multi-pronged approach to tackling this issue. Volunteering their work on the project were Taimi Castle, Professor of Justice Studies and director of the JMU Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence, and Lisa Porter, Associate Professor of Sociology at JMU.
After intensive training, the student researchers were able to recruit student activists, conduct interviews, analyze data, and begin preparing a manuscript under the guidance of the faculty team. Student researchers on the project included Kendall Cage, Mireya Campuzano, and Rafaela Lucioni at Mason, Cristal Badu from WM, and Brenda Goodson from JMU.
The team’s initial task was to learn what college student activists face through in-depth personal interviews. Explains Chen, “We found that burnout is prevalent among student activists. They experienced anxiety, panic, depression, hopelessness, or guilt – feeling physically and mentally exhausted. They felt pressure to keep laboring, advocating, organizing, and marching despite their own needs or limits. The difficulty in balancing school, family, and activism and the lack of perceived support for activist work and/or training to do the work at the institutional level all contributed to their burnout.”
With the preliminary findings, faculty and student researchers then designed and organized a Fall 2022 workshop titled “Renewal and Resilience: A Community of Student Activists,” which featured student activists fighting for food security, prison reform, racial justice, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, and gun control at Mason, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Following the student activist panel, Castle presented “Regenerating the Self,” encouraging participants to assess their well-being with the help of a self-care workbook. Participants were also encouraged to create their own maintenance plans to help in times of stress. Lisa Porter concluded the program by sharing an interview with Crimson Solano, a community leader of Harrisonburg-based Comité Salvadoreño Paisanos Unidos, a pro-immigrant policy advocate group.
Now, the team is in dissemination mode. The project was featured at https://integrative.gmu.edu/articles/18135. They are developing a virtual community with the Human Rights and Global Justice Initiative for student activists, which is under construction in conjunction with Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth. They have also submitted a book proposal on the well-being of student activists and are in the process of identifying external grants to expand this research further.
“This 4-VA@Mason grant helped us take a big step forward to take care of student leaders on our college campuses in Virginia. Without them, positive steps toward change are in peril,” says Chen. “It helped us take a critical look at where we can go from here. There is much more to be done.”