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Student Leaders Should Be Students First

Student Leaders Should Be Students FirstDuring the months of August and September, Washington, D.C., was a magnet for committed people whose activism is part of their desire to make our world a better one. Of the thousands who rallied for reparations on Aug. 17, there were several contingents of students in the mix, young people who had embraced the reparations movement and were determined to implement it. American Urban Radio’s Bev Smith shared hosting duties with young men whose comments resonated with the students.
On Sept. 13, the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a group of protestors to the Supreme Court to urge the court to support affirmative action in the University of Michigan cases. Some of the firepower from this action came from an amazing group called the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary  (BAMN), whose members ranged from high school to college age.
On Sept. 27, thousands of mostly young (and mostly White) activists converged to protest the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Promising to shut the city down, the activists collided with the police task force who made more than 600 arrests on the first day of protests. At the same time, the Saturday rally, televised on C-SPAN, was riveting because of the presentations from young activists who articulately presented their views on globalization.
Youth activism brings energy to a range of issues, especially for this “old head” who looks back on her “take it to the streets” days with some nostalgia. But I had a “back up” moment when I flew from Washington to Chicago on Sept. 28 and encountered a weary young sister at the airport.
She was jetting into D.C. and I was jetting out, and though tired and anxious, she was talkative. She shared that she had been working as a “student leader” since she arrived at her Midwest campus, first energized by affirmative action issues, then focused on the way campus investments affected global issues. “Do you know how much they pay women in the Philippines?” she asked me, shaking her head. “The global assembly line is an abomination.”
Here’s the bottom line, though: “How do you juggle it all,” she asked. “I feel a campus, national and global responsibility, and sometimes it seems overwhelming,” she said. “Sometimes I let my schoolwork slide so that I can be on top of my other work.”
I didn’t whisper, I shouted, at her. “Your first job is to be a student. Your first job is to get out of school. Your first job is to earn excellent grades. You serve the movement best by being a competent professional.” Only when I boarded my plane did I process the contradiction I had posed. Back in my day, I’d postpone a paper to get to a rally, turn in something late to put a few more hours into organizing. What’s changed? The times. It seems to me that there are more challenges to Black achievement now than there were a generation ago, less tolerance for activism. It seems to me that while we absolutely need the dynamic input of young people as voters, protesters and protest leaders, we also need them to excel as students. And it seems to me that from the time folks start matriculating, they are being pushed to juggle their scholarship and their activism.
For many students, being a student leader is a full-time job. Students in high school produce yearbooks and newspapers, organize community-service activities, coordinate conferences and programs, all the while holding down paying jobs and making the best grades in order to facilitate their entrance into top-notch schools like Howard and Harvard. 
Once these folks get to campus, they embark on a similar path of student leadership: running student governments, organizing protests and boycotts, meeting with university leaders and participating in other sundry activities required by the active student leaders. At college though, the hard and fast goal of using these activities to get into college disappears. Many students pursue this course out of a genuine desire to affect change though, to be sure, many see their extracurricular pursuits as a means to an end (the end being a good job, success or notoriety). 
But student leaders have made excellent contributions to both student life and to American life. Those involved with SNCC and CORE during the civil rights movement pleaded the cause for years with stunning efficacy. Student leaders have motivated universities to end their relationships with sweatshops. They’ve campaigned for the environment, the poor, immigrants, migrants and a laundry list of progressive causes. This should not go unnoticed or unappreciated. The problem is that so many students are so busy being leaders first that being a student takes a backseat.
It often puts them on the “six-year plan” where their education takes a toll, and they take five, six or seven years to complete their graduation, as opposed to the standard four. Some leaders fail to graduate at all, be it because of financial constraints brought on by working at leadership and not working at a job or because of a burnout created by years of organizing, leading and being involved in other intensive campus activities.
As a former student activist, I’m the last one to tell folks to put a brake on their extracurricular activities. But a weary young woman motivated me to write this column and to remind both students and those who advise them that the most important thing students can do is graduate! 

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