By Miguel Gonzalez
The College’s Office of Admissions announced its decision on Feb. 26 to not allow disciplinary consequences imposed on any applicant who participates in a peaceful protest while they are in high school affect their acceptance to the College.
The Office of Admissions took to social media to announce the College’s respect for civil discourse after the office received several inquiries regarding the fate of students who choose to participate in lawful demonstrations prior to their time at the College. Many high school students throughout the U.S. organized peaceful protests following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14.
“We’d like to assure you that The College of New Jersey encourages civil discourse and respects the rights of students to participate in peaceful and lawful protests. Discipline resulting from such participation would not be held against applicants to TCNJ,” the Office of Admissions said in its announcement.
Jennie Sekanics, an admissions counselor for first-year recruitment, said that student activism is a valuable leadership quality that aligns with the College’s mission statement.
“We value the leadership students demonstrate through their involvement in their communities,” Sekanics said. “Our announcement certainly aligns with our mission statement. We believe in promoting critical thinkers and responsible citizens.”
Matt Middleton, the associate director of admissions for out-of-state recruitment, said that the announcement will make the College more appealing to prospective students, both inside and outside of New Jersey.
“I imagine our statement will have a positive impact on out-of-state students’ perceptions of TCNJ,” Middleton said. “It’s hard to know at this time about its impact on applications as our deadline already passed for this year.”
The College received 1,339 applications from out-of-state residents, and 102 out-of-state students chose to enroll in 2016, according to the College’s Center for Institutional Effectiveness.
Felix Aidala, a junior economics major, said the shootings at Florida have motivated many high school students to become politically active.
“It’s important to consider the implication of student activism not being considered as a positive trait of first year-applications,” Aidala said. “Over the past few weeks, high schoolers have had the opportunity to participate in a national debate to an extent that, at least to my knowledge, they never have before.”
Felix believes the College made the right decision to encourage student activism.
“To threaten to rescind the acceptances of these high school students who have just found their voice would be misguided,” Felix said. “The involvement of high schoolers in these national debates that affect them so deeply should be actively encouraged.”
While high school students continue to protest over gun violence, students agree that there is a clear divide between peaceful and violent protests.
“To me, the line between civil disobedience and violence is clear,” Felix said. “Civil disobedience is by most definitions nonviolent, so as I understand it. Any non-peaceful protest can’t be considered within the umbrella of civil-disobedience protests.”
Abigail Lee, a junior political science major, contended that student activism reaches across different levels, such as advocacy for nonprofit organizations.
“A student activist is someone who has worked on campaigns or with non-profits like Habitat for Humanity or local animal shelters,” Lee said. “These are great traits in college applicants. Violence is obviously not a positive aspect in a college applicant.”
Lee believes students should take a hands-on approach to tackling any social issues.
“I think high school and college students can learn that the best way to solve a problem is a hands on approach,” Lee said. “If a student sees a political candidate they think would be best for that office, they should volunteer on their campaign. If a student wants to help with the large homeless population in their town, they should volunteer at the homeless shelter.”
Don Trahan Jr., the director of the College’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said the College has a responsibility to protect students’ rights to freedom of speech.
“As an institution, we have the duty to protect the students’ freedoms,” Trahan said. “I think students have a passion to use their voice and their constitutional right of freedom of speech. In some cases of protesting, the students might fear of admissions rescinding their offer or (the Office of) Student of Conduct questioning them. We want to honor freedom of speech with dignity and respect.”
Trahan anticipates a future growth of student activism like the civil rights movement.
“Student activism is becoming more active and exposed to media,” Trahan said. “It appears that students are coming more politically and socially conscious, similar to the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
With the growth of student activism in mind, Trahan said the College should be prepared to support the escalation of student activism.
“As we continue to grow nationally and globally, it’s important for our institution to be prepared for these situations,” Trahan said. “The student advocacy advisers group will be here to support students as they become more active.”
Elizabeth Bapasola, the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, urges the need for student activism to bring forth societal change.
“I do think we all need to be mindful of the TCNJ policies and procedures when wanting to advocate for change and utilize the many avenues already in place at TCNJ, such as our shared governance system,” Bapasola said. “In short, student leadership development matters, student political and social activism matters, and now, more than ever, our society needs leaders who have the skills, capacities and passion to work with others to bring about positive social change.”
Lance Taylor, a senior interdisciplinary business major, saw student advocacy as a strong trait among first-year applicants. He believes universities desire students who are capable of proposing changes to communities.
“Being an activist means you are willing to stand up for what you believe, in hopes of furthering a concept or idea that you feel will benefit society,” Taylor said. “Student activism requires courage, perseverance, self-starting and genuine care for those around you. I struggle to think of any university that would not want a student with those qualities to attend their institution.”
Taylor emphasized that every high school and college student should be open minded while addressing political and social issues.
“The current state of politics is so divisive that many individuals are afraid to talk about their beliefs,” Taylor said. “Civil discourse and community engagement supports the idea that everybody has a voice and everybody should be heard. This promotion of open-mindedness is a crucial principle that should be carried by high school and college students, the future of our country.”
Peter Shenouda, a sophomore political science and history double major, said he wants students to keep in mind that their freedom of speech is protected as long as it is passive and does not interfere with the student code of student conduct.
“In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that students did in fact have free speech in schools,” Shenouda said. “Over the years, however, the Court would narrow their ruling and protect political speech in schools, so long as it was passive and did not interfere with the school’s mission of education.”
Shenouda believes that students should be prepared for any possible consequences resulting from their activism.
“The behavior of these students is disruptive to the learning environment of their schools, and their actions will have consequences,” Shenouda said.
Shenouda proposed alternative methods to student activism such as volunteering for campaigns instead of directly protesting. He believes that students can create more substantial change by collaborating with legislators and being involved in policy reform.
“Activism should absolutely be considered a positive trait in first-year applicants, but I believe that the activism should be advanced through different means,” Shenouda said. “Passionate students should volunteer on campaigns or for other interest groups … putting in long hours at a congressman’s office is a meaningful way to affect change — leaving in the middle of math class is not.”