Class Act

Student activists

You don't need a graduate degree in psychology to notice the world's injustices. We've all passed homeless people on park benches, trash on the streets, buses spewing black smoke into the air and a plethora of other environmental and social problems. It's easy to get overwhelmed, but you can make a difference.

In fact, you should, because activism is a duty for psychologists, says Stephen Soldz, PhD, president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. "The problems facing the people that we're trying to help are not just individual," he says. "We're in a society that's facing major challenges and crises."

In addition to changing the world for the better, activism might even give you research ideas and link you with new friends, Soldz says. Here are the stories of three student activists fighting for change — who are changing their own lives in the process.

An animal research activist

As a graduate student studying the neurochemical basis of behaviors associated with drug use at the University of California, Los Angeles, Stephanie Groman wasn't very interested in rallies and debates. But that changed last year when animal rights activists torched her adviser's car. Groman works with UCLA neuroscientist David Jentsch, PhD, who uses rats and vervet monkeys in his research on the mechanisms of the medications used to treat schizophrenia, ADHD and addiction.

"We found out about [the arson] the next morning," says Groman.

When Jentsch launched Pro Test for Science, a group dedicated to explaining the importance of animals in biomedical research, Groman immediately signed on. "I felt very compelled to join," she says.

Her cause: Pro Test for Science aims to educate the public about the benefits of biomedical research. The group offers a counterpoint to animal rights groups that claim all animal research is cruel and unnecessary.

Her tactics: So far, the group has held three rallies and organized one debate. Groman helped coordinate the first rally in the weeks after the car incident. The event, held April 22, 2009, brought more than 700 people into the streets. Some protesters carried signs reading, "Animal research saves lives" and "Animal research = cures for cancer." Protesters heard speeches from Jentsch, the dean of UCLA's medical school and the provost, among others. "In general, animal researchers are pretty quiet about what they do," Groman says. "It was empowering to see how many people actually came out."

The results: A 2009 Pew survey found that 43 percent of Americans oppose animal research. Changing their minds won't happen overnight, says Groman, but she does believe Pro Test is having an impact. The rallies gave researchers, both those who use animals and those who don't, a forum to come together and take a stand. "It seems that the general public is becoming more informed about biomedical research and the benefits that it has for them," she says. What's more, several of Groman's classmates have told her they support what she does. "This collective unity among researchers has provided me the strength to stand up against the violence and to recognize that I should be proud of what I do," she says.

What she learned: Groman no longer hides the fact that her research involves animals. Instead, she explains why they're an integral part of her work. "I believe it gives science a face and gives people an opportunity to understand what biomedical research is about," she says. "It is our job as scientists to provide the information to the general public about the humane ways we do animal research as well as the direct benefits that it provides to humans and animals."

The recycle guru

Michael Amato, a environmental psychology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, participated in his share of protests and rallies as an undergraduate, but these days, his activism is less confrontational: He works with university administrators and officials to promote sustainability on campus. In fact, he's so interested in sustainability that he switched his research focus from linguistics to how people make decisions, especially choices related to natural resources such as energy and water use. He hopes his work will help policymakers convince people to make more sustainable decisions.

His cause: Amato's interest in the environment began with reading Ranger Rick magazine as a kid. "In college, I worked on several environmental justice campaigns," he says. "It made me furious that the ecosystems that sustain us all, and public goods like clean air and water, were being devastated on such a large scale for the short-term profits of a few people." Today, Amato is a member of the student organization REthink Wisconsin, which lobbies for ecologically friendly waste management on campus, and the university's sustainability initiative — We Conserve. He has also launched some sustainability initiatives of his own.

His tactics: Last year, Amato conducted a study and found that about 30 percent of UW's landfill waste was recyclable. Convinced that the university could do better, he worked with administrators on a plan to group trash and recycling bins together, rather than having them scattered throughout the hallways. Now people always have the option of putting the waste where it belongs, he says.

Amato also organized a campaign called REfill Wisconsin aimed at persuading students and faculty to carry reusable coffee mugs and water bottles, rather than relying on paper and plastic. "The big-picture goal is to give people something concrete they can do to help conserve resources every day, and in so doing increase the value they see in conservation as an end in itself," he says. Amato and his colleagues have hung signs everywhere on campus that people buy coffee, urging them to use a refillable cup. They have also been handing out REfill stickers in exchange for a pledge to carry reusable containers. He is also pushing campus restaurants and delis to serve more locally grown foods and use earth-friendly products.

The results: Amato's campaign to group the trash and recycling bins helped cut the amount of recyclables going into the landfill by half and saved the university $100,000 a year. REfill Wisconsin is set to be implemented this fall. Amato says his research suggests that about 12 percent of drink sales are refills. The campaign is still working out its official goals, but Amato hopes it can double that percentage by next year.

What he learned: Patience. As an undergraduate, Amato was frustrated by the slow pace of change. "I thought my friends and I were really going to change things overnight," he says. "When that didn't happen, I was pretty let down." These days, Amato accepts that progress takes time.

Speaking up for higher education

Erin Ellison has been fighting for social justice since she was just 5 years old. In kindergarten, she interviewed the mayor about toxic waste dumping and wrote letters to her local representatives, calling for a moratorium on the practice. "Even as a kid, it didn't seem fair to me that people could be harmed just so a company could make a higher profit."

Today, Ellison, a social psychology graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is focused on another social justice issue: Keeping higher education affordable and accessible.

Her cause: In the 1960s, the California State Board of Education approved a Master Plan for Higher Education that reaffirmed the state's long-standing commitment to tuition-free college education for California residents but also called for students to pay fees for housing, food and recreation. Ellison says these fees have become too steep. "Now students are paying over $10,000 a year," she says. That puts a college degree out of reach for many low-income people.

About a year ago, Ellison heard rumors that administrators were considering privatizing the university. "It just sort of blew my concept of what the University of California was. What has a public university become if it's no longer public?" she says. "The very people who make these decisions are the ones who gain from privatization, while low-income families bear the negative impacts."

Her tactics: To protest fee hikes, Ellison and dozens of other concerned students formed the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, which organized a protest Nov. 19, 2009. Hundreds of people gathered in a nearby plaza, then marched toward the main entrance to campus. "Student services before executive bonuses," read one sign. The protesters then took over an administrative building. A couple of days later, the university called in the police, and the students left with no arrests or injuries.

The committee's next move was organizing a strike, held March 4, and a national day of action. By 6 a.m., protesters had gathered at both entrances, forming picket lines. The protesters included students, angry about the fee hikes and budget cuts, and staff, angry about pay cuts and layoffs. By 9 a.m., the university was advising people not to come to campus. "Nobody was able to work," Ellison says.

The results: In November, the University of California Board of Regents approved a plan to raise fees by 32 percent over two years to cope with state budget cuts. "Our programs are getting gutted, and they're charging more money for it," Ellison says.

Despite these losses, she does think the protests have raised awareness among students and the general public about the fact that higher education may soon be available only to students from well-off families. "This is a major social issue, not just students whining about having to pay more," she says. "This privatization of public education and other social services is happening all over the world. Young people are not going to take it, and they are risking a great deal to stand up to power in this regard."

What she learned: Ellison hopes to study the psychology of social movements for her dissertation, so her work has given her plenty of contacts and potential future participants, she says. The struggle has also deepened Ellison's understanding of what she hopes to achieve during her career as a psychologist. "I don't want to preserve the university 'as is,'" she says. Rather, she hopes to transform it into a more democratic institution. Ellison says organizing and participating in the protests and rallies while trying to earn her PhD has been exhausting. But, she adds: "I feel a sense of ease that I am living up to what I am studying. I keep trying to walk the walk, which has been something I've been trying to do my whole life."

Cassandra Willyard is a writer in New York.