Polar vortex elicits power of student activism

Winter this year was unexpectedly harsh, bringing record-breaking low temperatures and at least 20 casualties throughout the American Midwest. Caused by the breakdown of the polar vortex, as a result of climate change, the sudden cold snap ground entire states to a halt and trapped people within their homes, while those without shelter were left at the mercy of the elements.

Here on campus, students were spared the cold thanks to the cancellation of classes on Jan. 30, and Jan. 31. A few hours before announcing the decision, the university sent out an email to all students about taking precautions against the extreme cold, making it seem that classes would be still be held despite the weather. This email stoked fears of confronting the ungodly temperatures, so students banded together and created an online petition appropriately titled “Cancel Class on Wednesday” that garnered nearly 3,500 signatures, equivalent to around half of the undergraduate class.

Regardless of whether the petition had any influence on the outcome, it does show that when we, the students, want something to change, we can come together and try to make it happen. It might be an exaggeration to brand an online petition as a prime example of student activism, but at the very least, people took the time out of their day to make their voices heard. In the end, signing an online petition supporting the cancellation of classes is still a step above just privately complaining to friends or ranting on Facebook, but it was a small action that sparked some significant meaning.

This raises the question: what else do students have the power to change?

College campuses have historically been more liberal and politically active than the general populous, with students often rallying around causes they believe in. The 20th century alone is rife with examples of students rising up and making a difference: from backing the Civil Rights Movement to protesting the Vietnam War to fighting against the political status quo, college students of the past were not afraid to speak out against what they saw as corrupt or morally wrong. Today, activism is more important than ever, especially given the present escalation in issues such as gun violence, political polarization and corruption, racism and intolerance, and economic inequality. With the advent of the internet and continued growth of social media, speaking out against something is easier than ever, and it is crucial for us to consider how we may leverage towards positive societal change.

We have seen the power of student advocacy in the past as well. In 2016, students and professors helped 80 CulinArt workers who were part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to raise their wages from $13.35 to $16.75, allowing the workers to earn wages that were on par with workers in nearby universities like the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University and lead more comfortable lives. Because there were students and professors who cared enough for the employees that help run the university, the union was able to gain enough power to create a new contract for these workers.

Does that mean you should go out right now and start a protest over any nationally controversial issue? Not necessarily; Carnegie Mellon does not have as impressive a legacy of student activism as other universities. Rather, we should begin with the problems immediately afflicting our campus and our community.

Anyone can see that our university has its fair share of issues, from the continuous cycle of constructing and removing the massive tents for orientation and major campus events that leave behind ugly fields of mud, the mistreatment of food workers by Chartwells, Carnegie Mellon’s food contractor; the ethical questions surrounding the increased collaboration between the Department of Defense and the university on projects such as the AI Task Force, and the displacement of local residents through continued acquisition of nearby apartment buildings.

No matter what your perspective may be on these various issues, it does not change the fact that students have both the power and responsibility to hold the university accountable for its actions and to foster a better community both on and off campus. Solving these problems may seem daunting, and it will likely require more than just an online petition, but that does not mean we shouldn’t try. One person griping about rising tuition rates might not make much of a difference, but a well-organized group of a few thousand is certainly a force to be reckoned with. If we, as a student body, collectively make it clear that we want scholarships to meet full demonstrated need instead of trying to pad our endowment, we may be able to better influence decision makers.

Banding together and acting in unison might sound like a lot of work, but the payoff far exceeds the cost. Not only could we change Carnegie Mellon for the better and leave an indelible mark on our institution, but we could extend beyond our campus and impact the world. We should begin establishing a tradition of student activism, because as idealistic and cliché as it may sound, we must be the change we wish to see, and working together is the best way to move towards a brighter future.