What’s Wrong With Vanilla?

By Ryan Manning — To me, there aren’t many places more exciting than a college campus during an election year. Especially this year. While the experts seem to always say how monumental nearly every presidential election will be, this year they seem to mean it. Talking to students about this year’s race has really brought me back to the 2008 election.

I was a senior in college, and the University of Missouri campus was Senator Obama’s last public appearance before becoming President-Elect Obama. Sure, the Mizzou campus is decidedly more liberal than the rest of the mid-Missouri area, but it’s not exactly a stronghold of the Democratic Party. But the lines wrapped all around campus to get a spot on the Carnahan Quad would have told you otherwise. The electricity of the event rivaled and maybe even surpassed the atmosphere of Mizzou Arena on the day the Tigers (The only NCAA basketball team closer to my heart than Marquette) take on the arch-rival Kansas Jayhawks. To see such a huge presence from both students and community members in what was so often considered a purely “Red” State made me love being a student and excited to see student activism grow as a new professional.

But, I’m not having much luck here.

Last night, I helped to facilitate a training session for RAs about supporting Civic and Political Engagement as Resident Life staff. I was surprised to hear a number of Resident Assistants describe the student body as “vanilla” in terms of the level of activism on campus. Admittedly, I have been underwhelmed by the level of civic engagement that I’ve seen from students here, but I mostly attributed that to being new or having high expectations coming from Marquette, where students are often so very outspoken about their causes. So it was interesting to hear that students, even RAs who are so often some of the most aware of campus climate, shared the same sentiments.

We showed videos of protests on campuses at comparable schools like Berkeley and Penn State, where students were coming together to make a difference. But our students simply described the sit-ins or marches as, “senseless,” or “misguided.” I started wondering about exactly could have led to this sort of apathy on campus. To me, the campus lends itself very well to a high level of civic engagement: the proximity to Washington DC, its location in Maryland’s most underserved county, and academic programs that recruit a high number of stellar students. But still, there’s a sense of “vanilla,” that permeates the campus.

Maybe the students, many of them growing up in the shadow of the capital, have become disillusioned by the protests and rallies that are so frequent there, or maybe it’s just easier for today’s students to post a video on Facebook about a social issue, and consider that doing enough. . Maybe the skimming over of civics courses in high schools to make room for a greater focus on reading and math has played a part. Maybe they just don’t think they can make a difference, or maybe they don’t even care to. Whatever the reason is, I’ve decided that I need to stop wondering why my students don’t seem to care, and start wondering how I can change their minds.

College campuses have so often been the epicenters for civic engagement and are usually considered ahead of the curve when it comes to social issues, from the Civil Rights movement, to the Vietnam War, to more recent economic issues. My college campus even had a free-speech zone, “Speaker’s Circle,” which was the site of so many debates as students argued against groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. I wonder what Speaker’s Circle is like today. Are students still there making a stand for gay rights, or has it instead devolved into a spot for catching some rays on this sunny day?

My recent thoughts have brought me back to thinking about what leadership is, and how I can best encourage students to be leaders for a better world. It seems clear that students seem fed up with activism that they don’t see as having a goal, a means with no end. So perhaps in order to inspire students to become engaged, I don’t need to teach them how to be engaged, but I need to help them understand why they should care. So many of the students I work with came to college to get a degree and secure a job, as well as make friends and have a social life. Those ideas of what college is for haven’t been challenged to expand. Should students be going to college to get jobs for themselves, or should they be going to college to help the world change so that everyone else can have jobs too? This hopefully comes with helping students understand their values and develop a much greater level of congruence between their values and actions. Only then, when students are living out their values instead of just saying that they’re there, does that shift from self to others really occur. This is a lesson I learned so well at Marquette. Once students understand what’s important to them, then they can find others with similar values and then collaborate to create social change.

Our job as educators isn’t to tell students what should be important to them. It’s to help them see that for themselves and then show them what to do with it. So, I’m dedicating myself to become a better role model for social consciousness, and giving students a model for living out their values. Hopefully, this will allow students to see what they can do as long as they care enough to do it. And then, with just enough caring, that “vanilla” taste throughout campus turns into something a little bit more flavorful.

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