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Sociology Prof. Vijayakumar advises on student activism, effecting change

Prof. Gowri Vijayakumar, a sociology professor with a focus in gender and sexuality, currently teaches a class called Protest, Politics and Change: Social Movements, which focuses on activism across many contexts. The class falls at a unique and opportune time, as students across the country look to mobilize in response to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric.

Trump’s recent executive actions have stirred controversy throughout the nation, inciting public debate and activist movements across many issues. One specific point of contention is the president’s immigration ban on seven Muslim-majority countries and his rhetoric concerning international identities. The president’s actions in this area have permeated life at Brandeis and higher education institutions throughout the country, specifically concerning international students and the future of their American education.

“I think it’s hugely dangerous,” Vijayakumar said about Trump’s immigration policies concerning international students and the country at large, “because it means that actual students here, not just at Brandeis, but throughout the country are unsure about their future, and that means that they don’t have a safe environment to learn in and contribute.”

She also questioned the impact the ban has on the country’s reputation in regard to American education being open to international students: “The other part of it is, what does it say about this country if we are not welcoming students into the country to study?”

According to The New York Times and The Washington Post, about 17,000 students across the nation are international students hailing from one of the seven countries listed as barred from entry. Both news organizations report students being barred from continuing their education due to the effects of the ban.

On Monday, Jan. 30, an organized protest near Boston University occurred just a few days after the ban was announced. The crowds rallied behind the “No Ban, No Wall” motto.

There are ways that students can join in on activist movements like “No Ban, No Wall,” and aid in the combat against direct attacks on “spaces for free thought and expression and radical ideas and subversive ideas and international exchange,” Vijayakumar said.

Active involvement in social movements in the area is one way students can practice activism and incite change in the community, Vijayakumar noted. For a while, movements have taken place throughout Boston that focus specifically on Muslim-American rights, according to Vijayakumar. “Some of the activism in the Boston area that I’ve been inspired by is led by immigrant groups that have been in the city for a long time,” she said. These movements organize specifically to advocate for “the rights of Muslim-Americans, within the Muslim community in Boston.”

She also advised taking inspiration for action from the various histories of activist movements in the United States. “There have been times when the forces of government have been aligned in this way, to be oppressive to large numbers of people in the country, and this isn’t the first time, and people have always risen up against it,” she said. From the histories of Muslim-American rights activists and others, movements can generate new ideas and ways to enact change by examining the accomplishments of past movements regarding similar issues.

Students can also effect change by simply joining a group. Through these groups, students are able to stay informed on various issues, have productive dialogue and mobilize to action, Vijayakumar added. There are numerous student clubs at Brandeis that focus on specific issues and promote activism in the Brandeis community.

Another important part of being a healthy and impactful activist is “to be constantly vigilant of inclusiveness and attentiveness to difference within all the spaces you’re in,” according to Vijayakumar. She also discussed the importance of a healthy environment for everyone involved in the movement.

Though activism concerning the struggle of international identities in America has always existed and has been an ongoing battle, the ban specifically has brought the issue to the forefront of media attention. Similarly, student activism is not a new development. “We’ve already seen a resurgence of student activism long before Trump in the last five to 10 years, around the world—in Chile, in India, in the United States, in South Africa,” she said.

The future of student activism is up to the students, Vijayakumar said optimistically. “I think this is a moment for students, and I hope it continues to be that way.”

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