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Why you should protest (even as an international student)

Columbine High School student Leah Zunder holds a sign during a National School Walkout to honor the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, at Columbine in Littleton, Colorado, US. Source: Reuters/Rick Wilking

Political activism – that is, protesting and joining a rally – can be beneficial to late adolescents and young adults, a new study has found.

Those who voted, volunteered and took part in civic engagement, can expect to do better in school and earn bigger bucks in the future, according to the study, published in the journal Child Development.

“All forms of civic engagement are positively associated with subsequent income and education level,” the article wrote.

“Volunteering and voting are favorably associated with subsequent mental health and health behaviors …”

Parissa Ballard, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine, told the New York Times “having meaningful opportunities to volunteer or be involved in activism may change how young people think about themselves or their possibilities for the future.”

The findings come in the wake of protests rocking both the US and UK. In America, students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting recently organised a national walkout to demand for gun control.

Students in English universities are also participating in a two-week escalating strike action organised by lecturers over proposed cuts to their pensions.

International students aren’t typically associated with political activism in both countries. Indeed, as campus activism in the US grew in recent years, data shows Asian students were the least politically active among all student groups in American universities.

A survey by the University of California, Los Angeles of first-year students across nearly 200 universities found that students who identify as “Asian” were less likely to join protests compared to their white, black or Latino peers, Quartz reported.

Students from Washington, DC-area schools protest for stricter gun control during a walkout by students at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Source: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

Yet, this study shows they could stand to benefit much from it.

Teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting have amassed support nationwide and instigated an unprecedented wave of student activism for more gun control, in a manner unseen before in the aftermath of previous mass shootings in schools.

In the UK, university students who participated in rallies across the UK in February spoke about how the industrial action have brought together students and lecturers in solidarity against the “dire” pension plan proposed.

“Students and lecturers have come together today to say that this is more important than just the cost of a lecture,” one student said.

There is an important caveat to the study’s findings touting the positives of activism, the study’s lead author warned.

“Activism,” Dr. Ballard said, “is usually a different social experience than other forms of civic engagement.”

Voting and voluneering are broadly supported and gratifying but “activism tends to be more controversial. Activism can be empowering. But it can also be experienced as difficult and stressful.”

Marching or rallying also leads to a higher likelihood of risky health behaviours. Unlike their peers who only voted or volunteered, protesting youth ended up with higher levels of fast food consumption, cigarette smoking, marijuana use and binge drinking when they were aged between 24 – 32 years old.

Researchers propose two reasons for this. One, risk-taking has always been part of the activists’ circle, which has historically been linked with counterculture groups. Two, the risky behaviours could have been the result of not achieving the intended ideal result of activism, ie. inspiring social change, and thus turning to these risky acts health-wise as consolation.

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