On what would otherwise have been a sleepy Friday morning at the University of Southern California, freshman Alec Vandenberg addressed a crowd of nearly 100 students congregated in front of Tommy Trojan to protest Donald Trump’s recent executive order limiting Muslim immigration.
The speech was no more than 30 seconds, encouraging the assembled to canvas and contact their local representatives, but concluded with a sentiment that largely resounded with an audience demanding national change.
“Student apathy ends now!” he yelled through a handed off megaphone at the Feb. 3 rally. “And student activism starts now!”
The crowd roared.
On a campus historically known much less for political activism than its University of California brethren, the election of President Donald Trump has set off a fervor among students and faculty alike that many argue hasn’t been seen in a generation.
“In talking with professors who have been here a while, they’ll tell you you would have never seen protests in front of Tommy Trojan on a rainy Friday morning,” said Jacob Lind, a freshman majoring in English literature.
In the days following Trump’s inauguration, a similar crowd to Friday’s stood in the rain outside the Von Kleinsmid Center in protest of the event. Just a few weeks later, nearly a dozen USC-related rallies and protests have touched the campus community. All have been in unity against one opposing force: their elected president.
“When Trump won election night, at the drop of a hat everything changed,” Lind said. “It was like the entire campus flipped a switch and started caring a lot more about politics.”
It is newfound territory for a generation that has largely grown up under the auspices of a Democratic administration.
At both USC and campuses nationwide, the post-election energy of college students is being compared to what occurred during the Vietnam War. Like Trump’s election, the bloody conflict in Southeast Asia — which saw fellow classmates being drafted off to fight a far-off war in the dozens — lit a fire in students’ hearts even at this University.
If one were to visit USC in mid-May 1970, they would find a starkly different political atmosphere than the one they may be used to. President Richard Nixon had just announced plans to invade Cambodia, amping up a war that many University members already vehemently opposed.
In response to widespread requests among students and faculty alike, the administration called off all classes and normal business for four days of campus protest and peaceful demonstration called the “Days of Concern.”
The Daily Trojan at the time dubbed it as “the most significant day in the history of the University of Southern California.” Nearly 1,500 students, faculty and administrators packed into Alumni Park to hear strike speeches. Faculty kept their doors open to facilitate cross-generational discussion. One student at the time wrote they were transformed from an apolitical bystander to an involved member of the political process.
“Last week I was the average apathetic USC student who lived day to day and didn’t give a damn about what was going on outside my own little world. I always felt that other people would take care of things,” they wrote. “Then, little by little, I realized that the government wasn’t as pure as I had thought… something snapped. I didn’t feel I could take other people’s word on things that I didn’t know about myself. I began to look into things for myself for the first time in my life.”
The emotions were largely similar to those of many USC students today.
Joe Harlan, a junior majoring in theater, is one of the many students who could be seen as a modern reincarnation of sentiments like the aforementioned — that of a newfound lack of faith in government. One of many invigorated after Trump’s election to immerse themselves in the political process, his first opportunity was the Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles, walking alongside more than 750,000 fellow demonstrators,
“It was the first time I put my body and my feet where my mouth was,” Harlan said. “Before I had been very politically aware, but this was the first time I was angry and scared. And not for myself — I’m a white suburban male. But it’s not about me, it’s about other people.”
Whereas in Vietnam the unifying fear was friends and family being sent to war, today students fear for the deportation of international classmates, or the trouncing of rights largely fought for in decades prior.
“I think we’re going back to political awareness rather than political complacency,” Harlan said. “With this election, I’ve seen everyone talking about it.”
Some students now are hoping to turn that talk into effective action. Lind, alongside Vandenberg and another classmate — all freshmen — founded Trojan Advocates for Political Progress just this semester as an outlet for students’ newfound desire to get involved.
While they laud the energy and momentum behind widespread rallies, the group advocates more for less fashionable methods of joining the political process, such as calling your local representative.
“The only way to change our policies we think are unjust is to get involved in the nitty-gritty aspects of politics,” said Vandenberg, who is also a writer for the Daily Trojan. “It’s not the glitz and glamor of rallies always.”
Students participating in this fresh wave of activism look to merge alongside the small but vocal community that has been fighting for a wide range of issues — ranging from the cessation of USC business ties to Bangladesh sweatshops to the fight for a $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles — long before Trump was in the running.
The challenge for these more seasoned activists is to find and retain those students who truly want to fight for change, rather than those who may be jumping onto the bandwagon of cliché college protest.
“I worry that the people who have only recently become politically active will only respond to injustice when it’s smacking them in the face, like with Trump’s immigration ban,” said Sophia Li, a senior majoring in sociology. “Or when it’s fun and trendy to do so, like participate in the Women’s March.”
Nevertheless, Li and others remain optimistic. In a political battle that ultimately benefits more from widespread unity than inner divisiveness, the newfound support is a welcome surprise.
“It can be frustrating to suddenly see a lot of people who have never organized before only now realize there are problems,” said Nadja Barlera, a senior majoring in English and member of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation. “But on the whole, it’s amazing to see so many people come out and support each other.”