In This Story:
- Colgate University
- George Washington University
- Purdue University
- University of Michigan
- Vanderbilt University
College students across the country will substitute in-class learning with service learning to honor the 85th birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. this Monday.
Instead of focusing on racial tolerance, however, many college students and administrators now view the day as an opportunity to encourage equity in all forms and address social injustices beyond those stemming from racial discrimination.
Danica Brown, 21, a political science major and president of the Black Student Union at The George Washington University, says the events planned at GW evolve every year address the most pressing issues of the time.
Brown says issues surrounding LGBTQ rights and income equality, in addition to racism, are most relevant to college students today and students engage in conversations to affect change for society as a whole.
In that way, King’s legacy lives on.
“We have a responsibility to educate not only the generation below us, but also the generation above us,” Brown says. “Now we can show them that there are new ways to have the conversation.”
Students can gain more hands-on experiences through participating in community service, attending speeches from prolific Civil Rights activists and partaking in panel discussions on topics ranging from the controversial Stand Your Ground laws at the University of Michigan to the benefits of including diversity in grant proposals at Purdue University.
All of these events and community service activities are planned, as Brown explains, to create awareness of the advantages and disadvantages experienced by certain groups within society. For Brown, remembering King’s legacy is a way to recognize the opportunities still available to affect real change.
For college students, the call to social justice is particularly strong.
“I think students are aware of the pressing needs of justice to be addressed in the world and in their world,” says Reverend Mark Forrester, university chaplain and director of religious life at Vanderbilt University.
Forrester, too, emphasized the generational needs of social activism, which he says college students are particularly attuned to.
In addition to hosting actor/activist Danny Glover as the keynote speaker, Vanderbilt provides students multiple community service activities on Monday. Forrester says this service learning component is crucial for students to familiarize themselves with their community and its needs.
“Martin Luther King at least provides a moral example that could be followed,” Forrester says of addressing new issues that continue to arise.
Thomas Cruz-Soto, associate dean for multicultural affairs and director of the ALANA Cultural Center at Colgate University in New York, agrees that equity and access will continue to be central themes of MLK Day in future years.
Cruz-Soto echoes Brown, saying income equality, and particularly the rising costs of college tuition, could be this generation’s catalyst for change.
“That’s something that MLK didn’t talk about directly, but it’s generational and impactful,” Cruz-Soto says. “It can impact an entire generation by sending one child to college.”
It’s up to the colleges and universities, Cruz-Soto says, to deliver these messages of social justice to the larger community.
He noted the increasing diversification of the United States’ population as an example of why messages of tolerance, acceptance and equity — beyond race — need to be established in the community.
“We’re building the next leaders,” he says. “If it’s not happening in higher ed, then that’s a shame.”
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