All About Demonstrations and US College Campuses: A Guide for International Students

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By Kate Sitarz
Last updated on August 10, 2023

Participating in student demonstrations can be a key part of attending college in the USA, as experiences outside the classroom are part of a holistic US education. If you choose to participate, demonstrations often play a part in changing the world, university community, nation, and world for the better.

A university student wears a mask in a crowd of protesters with the crowd raising fists

In America, the right to peacefully assemble and to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” are essential rights, included in the United States Constitution as the First Amendment. These rights are values America was founded on, alongside the freedom of speech, press, and religion.

Student demonstrations on college campuses have played a vital part in exercising that right. Demonstrations, also known as protests, are very much a part of US campus culture. Throughout history, students have protested in support of a variety of causes, exercising their right to challenge what is considered the status quo and speak out for what they believe to be a better way of life. In doing so, students have managed to not only have their voices heard, but also have brought about positive change in higher education — and even US law!

If you attend college in the US, you may see — and even participate in — demonstrations. Here is what international students need to know about the history of student protests in the US before getting to campus.

Student Demonstrations: A Centuries-Old Tradition

Student protests go back nearly to when the first colleges in America opened. Some demonstrations are focused specifically on the university and its policies, while others have addressed issues that impact the entire country.

As the oldest college in the United States, Harvard University has seen its share of protests, starting in the 1630s with student protests against Harvard’s President, Nathaniel Eaton, in response to his disciplinary tactics. Less-serious protests on the campus included the Great Butter Rebellion of 1766, during which a student claimed the butter “stinketh,” and demanded butter that did not smell.

In more recent history, student protests played an integral role in the civil rights movement. Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond started lunch counter sit-ins. The four young men, all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, sat at a “whites-only” counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave. 

Their act sparked hundreds of other sit-ins across the United States and ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, to include segregation in public spaces.

On university campuses, protesting remained important, as students kept pressure on their own universities to enact anti-racist policies and practices. For example, at the demand of students, San Francisco State University established the first African-American studies department in the US. At Howard University, students were successful in getting any disciplinary actions from earlier protests dropped and in creating a campus judiciary system with student input.

American students have also protested on behalf of people and issues around the world, drawing attention and support to causes beyond US borders. For example, as South Africans protested apartheid, American students demanded that their colleges and universities break ties with South African businesses supporting apartheid.

When climate activist Greta Thunberg skipped school to draw attention to climate change, she sparked additional protests from students of all ages, including those on college campuses. Students, professors, and environmental organizations, among others, came together for a teach-in at George Washington University, while Harvard and Yale students took to the football field during the annual rivalry game to demand the schools stop investing their endowments in fossil fuel companies.

Students on college campuses also have a long history of protesting wars. Perhaps no protests drew as much support and attention as those over the Vietnam War. Protests took place at numerous universities across the United States, but the teach-in protest at the University of Michigan took a slightly unconventional format. Teachers educated students about the war, holding demonstrations after class.

In the last decade, students have held peaceful protests against a variety of issues, such as the Keystone XL pipeline. Because of its location near the White House, Georgetown University acted as the demonstration’s “host,” as students from other colleges joined the protest. The pipeline was eventually vetoed. 

When Donald Trump was elected to office, students descended on Washington for the Women’s March, in addition to organizing their own marches in cities around the world. Other campuses became “sanctuary campuses,” signaling to immigrants and other marginalized communities that they are welcome on campus.

Today, the Black Lives Matter protests continue this rich history of protesting for social change. The movement has put racial inequality at the forefront of the national conversation, with students pushing for greater accountability of police and an end to police brutality, as well as changing discriminatory policies across government and industry. 

It has also sparked protests pushing for more inclusive campuses. One protest at the University of Missouri demanded that the president resign and that the school increase the number of Black faculty and staff. The protests did result in the president resigning and in the school hiring its first chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer.

Developing Critical Thinking Skills Through Demonstrations

Studying in the United States gives you the opportunity to partake in protests. Protests are an integral part of US college education because they allow students to voice their values, but also because they allow students to build their identity. Protesting with fellow students brings you together for a common cause and helps you show support for something you believe is right or object to something you believe is wrong. 

Spend some time considering causes you believe in. Why is that cause important to you? What has contributed to this belief? Spending time answering questions like these can help you build your critical thinking skills and form cohesive arguments about why something is just or unjust — and why it needs addressing. 

This type of thinking also encourages questioning everyday conditions, policies, and norms. If something has always been done one way, is it the best way to do it? Is there a better way? Is there something getting in the way of allowing us to do something differently? If so, are there ways to change it without protesting? Or is participating in a protest the way to start the conversation?

Getting involved with a protest will bring you together with a community of like-minded people who also care about that cause and want to raise awareness. That is ultimately what protesting is about: changing minds. By bringing attention to an issue, and starting or shifting the conversation around that topic, students have the power to address injustice. Protesters put the necessary pressure on those in positions of power to build a better world. So, ultimately, as a student, you have significant power, too. 

Demonstrating 101: What to Do if You Want to Get Involved

As an international student at a US university, you may hear about a protest on campus, or even want to organize one yourself. Again, if you do not want to get involved — that is fine! Not every student participates in protests.

If you want to get involved, you can certainly do so. Many international students support causes they believe in by showing up to relevant protests. Some protests will be directed against campus culture and practice, some at US national issues, and some at international events. Protests often share the values of advancing fairness, equity, tolerance, representation, and inclusion. If you choose to get involved, the first thing to do is check your school’s policies to understand what is and is not allowed. Unlike public colleges, private colleges do not have to promise constitutional rights like freedom of speech, although most do. You will want to check on your school’s rules governing protests, such as time and location restrictions, and understand what will happen if you violate these rules.

Many schools include rules for protests in their student handbooks, but if you cannot find that information, contact your Office of Student Affairs or Student Life for more details, or speak to your Shorelight counselor.

Remember, there are different types of protests, too. While many protests are peaceful, you want to know your rights as a student and know what to do to stay safe. Amnesty International has created a convenient checklist so you know what to do, what to bring, and what to wear to a protest. You will want to stay hydrated, go with friends who can look out for you and each other, and document what happens, among other tips.

You also may be able to attend your university’s administrative meetings. Often, schools have open meetings where students can voice their concerns directly with the administration. This is another way to push for policy reforms without necessarily taking part in a larger protest. Sometimes, this is the first step and, if students do not feel their concerns are heard, they may organize a protest. That was the catalyst behind the tuition protests at The University of Texas at Austin. When students protested on behalf of low-income students, the administration decided to cover tuition for families making less than $65,000.

Above all, remember that as a student you have the power to advocate for positive social change. There are hundreds of protests at US campuses that do not always make the news because they are not sensational. But that does not mean their impact is small. 

Students have managed to make meaningful changes by asking. For example, students at the University of North Carolina recently asked the administration to make attending online classes flexible in light of COVID-19 because many students live in rural areas with limited internet connectivity. And when hundreds of University of Chicago students refused to pay tuition, administrators opted not to increase tuition rates for the following year.

There is power in numbers. And when you lend your voice to a protest, you can make positive change — and become part of history. 

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