University News

Schoolwork, advocacy place strain on student activists

Students struggle with mental health, academic pressures as they act on social justice responsibilities

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Students for Justice in Palestine protested the Jewish Journeys event featuring Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky earlier this month. Many involved with campus activism encounter mental, emotional and physical stress while trying to balance their academic and activist responsibilities.

Students for Justice in Palestine protested the Jewish Journeys event featuring Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky earlier this month. Many involved with campus activism encounter mental, emotional and physical stress while trying to balance their academic and activist responsibilities.

Two weeks ago, the University released the final version of its diversity and inclusion action plan, which could not have been compiled without the exhaustive efforts of students throughout last semester.

“There are people breaking down, dropping out of classes and failing classes because of the activism work they are taking on,” said David, an undergraduate whose name has been changed to preserve anonymity. Throughout the year, he has worked to confront issues of racism and diversity on campus.

His role as a student activist has taken a toll on his mental, physical and emotional health. “My grades dropped dramatically. My health completely changed. I lost weight. I’m on antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills right now. (Counseling and Psychological Services) counselors called me. I had deans calling me to make sure I was okay,” he said.

As students rallied to protest two racist columns published by The Herald and the alleged assault of a Latinx student from Dartmouth by a Department of Public Safety officer, David  spent numerous hours organizing demonstrations with fellow activists. Meanwhile, he struggled to balance his classes, job and social life with the activism to which he feels so dedicated. Stressors and triggers flooded his life constantly, he said.

David turned to CAPS and reached out to deans for notes that extended his deadlines for assignments. These were helpful, he said, but acted only as “bandages” for the underlying causes of stress.

Justice Gaines ’16, who uses the pronouns xe, xem and xyr, said student activism efforts on campus are necessary. “I don’t feel okay with seeing students go through hardships without helping and organizing to make things better.”

In the wake of The Herald’s opinion pieces, Gaines felt overwhelmed by emotions flooding across campus. Students were called out of class into organizing meetings, and xe felt pressure to help xyr peers cope with what was going on, xe said. Gaines “had a panic attack and couldn’t go to class for several days.”

Deans’ notes helped Gaines to complete academic work while staying involved in student activism.

In writing such notes, deans acknowledge the difficulties faced by a student on campus and demonstrate their support for the student’s requests, said Ashley Ferranti, assistant dean of student support services.

Though it is ultimately up to a faculty member to accept a dean’s note, Ferranti estimated that notes are accepted over 90 percent of the time. Students who take issue with the rejection of a note can discuss the incident with a dean, Ferranti added.

While notes are helpful, they should be “more accessible” and “more serious, so that professors will be more inclined to follow them,” Gaines said.

Some students very active in organizing and protesting end up in academic trouble, Ferranti said.

When faced with the decision of completing activist work or studying for an exam, students sometimes feel obligated to choose the former, said Liliana Sampedro ’18. This choice, often made by students advocating for increased diversity on campus, “has systemic effects on students of color,” she added.

Sampedro worked alongside the group that presented the demands for the diversity and inclusion action plan’s revision. It was a Thursday, she recalled, and she had a research presentation that needed to be completed that week. “I remember emailing the professor and begging her to put things off another week,” she said. The professor denied her request.

“I hadn’t eaten. I hadn’t slept. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally,” she said. After hours of work to compile and present the demands, she forced herself to stay up to complete the project anyway.

Other students have also seen their academic work impacted by their efforts to advance social justice causes. This past semester, David spent class time on his activist work in order to address a time-sensitive issue. As a result, one of David’s professors lowered his grade because he was distracted in class, he said.

Sampedro was also on the committee that planned workshops for the Latinx Ivy League Conference, including Paxson’s presentation to students following the assault by a DPS officer on a student earlier that weekend. “I remember seeing all the tears in the room — that was traumatizing — and then not being able to focus on my homework,” she said. “Homework was the least of my worries.”

Despite the hardships that students take on in their activism, the University does not want to discourage them from contributing to change on campus.

This work is an “important part of the academic learning experience,” Ferranti said. She was present at the Brown/RISD Hillel-sponsored lecture that was protested by Students for Justice in Palestine earlier this semester, offering academic and emotional support for the protestors.

The University sends deans to activism events not only to monitor students but also to offer support for those involved. “For example, if a student is at a sexual assault event, and the student is a victim him or herself, that student might talk to me about it,” Ferranti said.

Students “might be impacted, something might be triggered or they might suddenly remember more at that event they were protesting,” she added.

Ferranti said she is “proud to work in a place where students come together over important social issues.” As administrators, “we are not just looking at protocols, we’re also thinking about what this means to the students who are there,” she added.