Thriving Together Series: College Student Activists, Resilience, and Well-Being

Thriving Together Student Activism

Creative Services/George Mason University

By: Cher Weixia Chen, Ph.D. and Graziella Pagliarulo McCarron, Ph.D., School of Integrative Studies, CWB Senior Scholars

As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

College students who are student activists are often underappreciated and underserved. It is vital for student activists at George Mason University and other universities to focus on their resilience and well-being, in order to prevent burnout. Here are the stories of four amazing Mason students who are working on social justice and human rights issues – and resources that can strengthen well-being for students who are working for positive social change.

In 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, NPR published this article on five college student activists, a rare piece on this population. While both popular and scholarly focus on these formidable agents of change is growing, we still know very little about their journeys, their needs, and how they can best be supported in their work.

Earlier in the Spring 2021 semester, we organized a symposium titled “Resistance and Resilience: Student Activism and Well-Being.” Four Mason student activists – working on issues such as food security, prison reform, racial justice, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, and gun control – shared their powerful stories of activism and activism’s intersections with their well-being:

  • Student activist “Carl” grew up poor, struggled to find food to eat, find shelter, and pay bills. Because of their identity as a gay person, they were often bullied and made to feel small. But, they chose to stand up and launched their anti-bullying activism campaign at just 8 years of age. When Carl’s uncle tragically died as a result of gun violence when Carl was just 11, Carl acted once again. Given their life experiences, Carl is a true force – a lifelong activist now fighting for gun control and LGBTQ+ rights.
  • Student activist “Renee” organized her first protest in 6th grade, demanding that her private school lower its lunch prices so that her friends from lower income households could eat. In the years since, Renee has grown her activism into a national campaign. At the age of 18, she founded a nonprofit to raise money and effectively combat food insecurity in her native Brazil. Today, Renee works with local governments to feed the hungry.
  • Student activist “Cam” has done tremendous work on prison reform and restorative justice. Her work focuses on education and community-building as fundamental tools for change – engaging directly with incarcerated and non-incarcerated educators and scholars to develop and teach curriculum covering issues including community, transformation, education, and liberation. Cam is reshaping the world.
  • Student activist “Del”, a survivor of a traumatizing childhood, overcame depression and doubts to become a voice for real change and a student leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. Del has worked determinedly against voter suppression and pushes every day to uplift the larger community and fight for racial justice.

Burnout among Student Activists

Around the world, student activists like these Mason students have taken the lead in social movements such as those around climate change, Black Lives Matter, and voting rights. But this initiative comes with a catch. Despite student activists’ passion for activism, pressure and pitfalls are salient.

From our own data, after having interviewed over 60 college student activists, we found that burnout is prevalent among student activists. For some of these students, burnout is the biggest challenge to their activist work. They experienced anxiety, panic, depression, hopelessness, or guilt – feeling physically and mentally exhausted. The pressure to keep laboring, advocating, organizing, and marching despite their own needs or limits, the difficulty in balancing school, family, and activism, and the lack of perceived support for activist work and/or training to do the work at the institutional level all contributed to their burnout.

Let’s focus on the role of institutions in the well-being of student activists here.

A student activist has to learn to navigate the institutional system as a student and as an activist, which could be particularly challenging for activists at larger universities, activists with minoritized identities for whom the burden of labor is especially heavy, and activists whose work includes challenging university policies and norms. Further, in addition to negotiating the complexity of the student activist identity, student activists receive little institutional or formal training/mentoring/coaching with regard to how to preserve their well-being and combat burnout.

So, we urge our institutions to engage student activists and understand their needs; to learn from student activists by welcoming their challenges and sitting with the discomfort; and to craft a plan to assist this unique population who are agents of social change. At the very least, universities should engage in a broader discussion about student activist well-being and take an active role in supporting student activists as whole people. These Human Rights Resilience Project resources, as well as the additional resources listed below, can help. After all, student activist burnout is not just about the well-being of the activists – it affects the well-being of the communities they serve.

Additional Resources

CWB’s Thriving Activist Toolkit can help people overcome activist burnout.

Mason’s Resilience Badge is a fully online, asynchronous learning opportunity that has been especially designed for students and is open to all Mason students, faculty, and staff.

Enjoy these famous quotes on student activism and well-being.

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