If someone was tasked with describing USC’s University Park campus, he or she would be remiss not to include an anecdote about the ever-present solicitors on Trousdale Parkway. It’s a rarity for anyone to walk through campus without seeing a sea of brightly colored vests stationed at every corner of campus, always enthusiastically thrusting petitions in the face of anyone patient enough to stop and talk to them.
Often, these encounters begin with the occasional “Let’s change the world together,” or “You look like you care about dolphins.” For those students who don’t have the time to stop, they are left with two recourses — either politely decline or try their best to avoid eye contact and look away so as to put off the inevitable guilt trip that follows the rejection. Though it’s one thing to lobby respectfully for a worthy cause such as Amnesty International or Greenpeace, it’s another thing entirely to verbally or physically harass students who are en route to their on-campus obligations.
Though I never used to have a problem with these solicitors, that changed this past fall when I was accosted by a group of petitioners who strategically blocked my entrance to the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. I was on my way to buy a last minute blue book for a midterm when an overly enthusiastic young man in a neon orange vest ran up to me and said, “You look stressed, let me give you a hug.” Being a big believer in both personal space and stranger danger, I politely declined and attempted to make my way to the bookstore and my subsequent midterm. But instead of letting me go, the solicitor continued to aggressively attempt to give me a hug, arms outstretched and getting way too close for comfort to the extent that I had to push his arms off of me and sharply demand that he leave me alone, to which he replied, “You don’t have to be such a b–ch about it.”
Instead of wasting more of my time dealing with him, I took the chance to flee to class and let it go for the moment. But later on, the more I thought about it, the more furious I became. What right does a random stranger have to physically and verbally harass me on my way to a midterm? Shouldn’t there be some way of protecting myself from this?
Interactions such as mine are unfortunately not uncommon. Claire Brunvand, a sophomore majoring in cognitive science, recalled a time when one Amnesty International man asked her if she had somewhere to be. When she said she had class, he reportedly started making obscene hand gestures near his genitals.
Sarah Bass, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering, recalled another similar experience.
“One of them stopped me on my way to class and asked me if I’d sign a petition to save the dolphins, and when I said I had to go to class and couldn’t stop he yelled at me and called me an animal murderer,” Bass said. “It was aggressive, to say the least.”
Shannon Delijani, a freshman majoring in vocal performance, recalled a time when a man from Children’s International stopped her and started asking personal questions. Though she figured he was just doing his job and trying to get to know her before asking for money, the conversation became more and more uncomfortable.
“He kind of brushed it off and kept asking me questions about myself and my major and music things, and I was starting to get uncomfortable and tried to leave the conversation,” Delijani said. “One of my friends saw me and thought I needed help so she tried to come over and get out of it but the guy kept following us really aggressively. He ended up asking for my number, and I said no. When I didn’t give it to him he started yelling and kind of making a scene about how I was being rude to him and he was just trying to be friendly and started shouting. My friend and I ended up basically running away. I was pretty terrified.”
Such incidents, of course, are not indicative of every student’s experience with these solicitors. For many solicitors, their six-hour shifts on campus are meant to raise awareness — not disturb student life.
Of the average 30 people who stop to talk, only three or four actually sign up, according to a volunteer from Greenpeace on Trousdale Parkway. According to another volunteer from Amnesty International, approximately one in six students stop and talk to them (much more than the one in 10 average internationally).
“It started out as a job, but then I realized it’s great to see people getting inspired when you talk to them — it’s like a call to action,” a member of Greenpeace said. “My job description is to raise awareness to these people, offer a solution and invite them to be part of the solution and then live in it with me and four million people across the globe.”
Many solicitors politely ask for a moment of one’s time and simply move on if one declines. Many even wish you a good day. The problem, however, is that not everyone behaves this way.
Regardless of their good intentions and worthwhile causes, solicitors should not be given free reign to intrude on the daily lives of students beyond politely asking for a moment of their time. Allowing random and unscreened volunteers from a variety of organizations to openly pass judgement on students in their own academic environment isn’t conducive with learning or advocacy — it’s disruptive and only generates more apathy.
Leigh Jacobson is a sophomore majoring in international relations.