IRVINE, Calif. (AP)—If campus activism still brings to mind peace signs, a sea of White faces and liberal strongholds like Berkeley, meet Jesse Cheng.
Cheng is a third-year Asian-American studies major at the University of California, Irvine, a campus less than five decades old in the middle of Orange County, a place of strip malls and subdivisions that gave birth to the ultraconservative John Birch Society. He is part of a growing movement of minority students rallying around a new cause—fighting a budget crisis that’s undermining access to higher education at a time when students of color have become a stronger demographic force.
“For a lot of students of color, this is our dream and our hope—to get to college,” said Cheng, who is about to start a one-year term representing students from all 10 University of California campuses on the system’s board of regents. “We never thought we’d make it and we’re here. And we’re not going to give it up so easily.”
The increased diversity of students, many of them the first in their families to attend college, is both a strength and a liability. Splits have emerged over tactics and agendas, making coalition-building more challenging than ever.
At 27,000-student UC-Irvine, the scene includes a Pakistani-American working behind the scenes on budget issues as her own financial aid disappears, a Filipino-American struggling to shake fellow Asian students from political apathy and a gay African-American activist who thinks the focus on student fees obscures larger problems like the evils of capitalism.
The fact that students of color are at the forefront of campus protests marks a significant shift, said Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York who has studied student activism.
“In the past, minorities have tended to provide leadership for the minority protests,” Levine said. “Now they’ve moved to center stage. They’re leading the protests.”
Some longtime activists, minority students among them, are wary of focusing too narrowly on the higher-education budget crisis.
Ryan Davis, a gay African-American student, said rising student fees are just a symptom of the larger problem of a “racist, hetero-normative, capitalist structure we want to take down by any means necessary.”
To Davis, that flawed structure allows for curriculum that glosses over minority contributions, campus workers not extended job protections and student bodies that don’t reflect the state’s diversity well enough.
“We’re just trying to make sure that’s highlighted and we’re not just washing over that in all the rhetoric over fee hikes,” said Davis, of San Diego.
Yet Davis said he doesn’t see student activists who work with administrators and elected officials on the budget crisis as enemies. And work-within-the-system students like Sarah Bana say they need students like Davis.
“If Ryan doesn’t yell at people and tell them what is wrong, I can’t say, ‘Here is one little way you can fix it,’” said Bana, executive vice president of Associated Students of UC-Irvine, the undergraduate student government.