From coast to coast and border to border, college students have long worked to catalyze change—whether on campus, in their communities or at the state and national levels. They’ve harnessed their talents and skills to express their opinions and urge action on everything from foreign affairs and civil rights to environmental challenges and economic inequities.
At DU, activism reflects the broad range of student interests and concerns. In the last year alone, DU students have advocated for and against a range of issues spanning abortion bans to fossil fuels. They’ve called for police reform, climate-friendly initiatives and new academic programs to explore deep-seated social challenges.
And like their counterparts elsewhere, they are not just confronting various issues. They’re also redefining what it means to be an activist. No matter their cause, today’s changemakers have their own methods and tools for bettering the world. Chief among them: social media.
“It’s really remarkable how savvy current students are in the social media realm and the ways in which it has allowed grassroots organizing to grow and thrive,” says associate professor Elizabeth Escobedo, director of DU’s program in critical race and ethnic studies. In the midst of social distancing and quarantines, social media helped various movements sustain momentum and keep interested parties up to date.
Nationwide, the current population of student activists is increasingly diverse and well-versed in the concept of intersectionality, a term that references how race, class, gender and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap. And as a recent study from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement notes, youth of color are the most likely to be active in movements.
That’s increasingly true at DU, as well. “Although still a predominantly white institution,” Escobedo says, “DU has become more diverse over the years. We’ve also seen more affinity groups created by students of a variety of minoritized identities, and this has allowed and encouraged increased multiracial collaborations amongst student groups.”
For all their diversity, today’s activists share one thing in common: They believe they can make a difference.
Meet a handful of DU’s changemakers from the Class of 2021 and Class of 2022.
Seamus Geraty (Class of 2021)
With the glorious Rocky Mountains in DU’s backyard, it’s a given that many students care about preserving the natural environment. Seamus Geraty, who majored in geography, cares so much that he advocates on its behalf.
Geraty, who hails from Des Moines, Iowa, has been a fixture in DU’s sustainability circles, serving as vice chair of DU’s Sustainability Council and as a member of the Sustainability Committee.
Activism, he argues, begins backstage. “A lot of people want to get out, and they want to carry signs around, [because] that’s what they understand about activism, [but] there’s a lot that I have been working on and others have been working on behind the scenes.” That includes holding activism training, as well as supporting other intersecting justice missions in recognition of the fact that environmental problems often disproportionately affect the marginalized.
Caitlyn Achilles (Class of 2021)
When she wasn’t playing French horn at Lamont, Caitlyn Achilles ensured her non-musical voice was heard.
From the beginning, the outspoken pro-life advocate knew that her cause required striking the right notes.
During her sophomore year at DU, she launched a solo mission to introduce a Students for Life group on campus.
Since then, the group’s members have organized and participated in various advocacy events on and off campus. They have volunteered at local pregnancy centers and hosted an initiative that encourages college-aged women confronting an unplanned pregnancy to choose life. This program also helps new mothers by providing everything from diapers to baby clothes.
In fall 2020, Achilles advocated for her cause by co-running the DU-based Instagram page @yes115du, which encouraged students to vote yes on Colorado’s Proposition 115 and its proposed statewide abortion ban at 22 weeks. Although the proposition was struck down, Achilles and her fellow Students for Life members were excited to branch into social media to spread their message.
Given the controversy associated with their cause, Students for Life has learned to navigate a variety of responses from their target audience.
“We’ve definitely had some pretty icy conversations,” Achilles says, “but our main thing is just approaching people with love and with care and compassion.”
In the future, Achilles hopes to continue her advocacy in whatever capacity she can. “I want to keep doing this work forever,” she says. “I love it. I’m very passionate about it, … and I hope to leave a stronger group [at DU] than what was started.”
Caris Fox (Class of 2022)
As a co-founder of RememberX, a member of DU’s Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of Inequality (IRISE) and a host of IRISE’s Rage podcast, Caris Fox has brought untethered energy to her quest to make DU a better place for students of color.
Fox’s dedication to activism began at her Aurora, Colorado, high school, where she was one of just a few Black students. At 16, she witnessed the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the widely publicized police shootings of Black Americans.
“Within my community, as a Black person, there was a lot of fear and anger going around—but no one outside of our community seemed to care,” Fox recalls. “A lot of the shootings did involve young Black men, so when I would look at my brother, I would just think about what if that was him? What if that was my dad? What if it was my neighbor? I knew that I couldn’t not talk about it.”
In her first year at DU, Fox, who is double majoring in political science and English, struggled to find students on campus who understood her fears and concerns.
“It really wasn’t until I started to get out and meet more people and go to spaces that had people of color, that had LGBTQ folks, that had people with these other marginalized identities that I really felt less alone,” she says. “We were all kind of wrestling with the same problem, and we were all wondering what we could do to make it better.”
On campus, Fox makes it better by, among other things, organizing IRISE-sponsored virtual “teach-ins” that invite students to “just learn together.” Outside of campus, she has interned at The Blue Bench, an organization dedicated to combating sexual and gender-based violence.
For Fox, life has been a series of conscious decisions to be present and fight for change: “I decided I had to figure out who I wanted to be as a person, and it wasn’t someone who was just silent.”
Abdul Ayad (Class of 2021)
Growing up in Libya and the United Kingdom, Abdul Ayad transferred to DU seeking a computer science degree to accompany his architecture studies at University of Tripoli. In his first week at DU, Ayad befriended several of his fellow international students. Even as someone who grew up in many different places, he found their diversity fascinating.
Over time, Ayad noticed that, on campus, he had to seek out diversity through such affinity organizations as the International Students Organization and the Black Student Alliance, which elected him treasurer. His junior year, he became the Diversity and Inclusive Excellence senator in Undergraduate Student Government.
“When I started to become a student leader,” Ayad says, “I noticed that I can do something about [injustices]. It started with, ‘I want to be in the community,’ and then it built into, ‘I want to make this community better for people like me and other people who aren’t like me.’”
Hoping to raise awareness about how history impacts current campus culture, Ayad co-founded RememberX, a social media organization that posts examples of activism and injustice from DU’s history. In spring 2020, he and his Diversity Committee peers circulated a successful petition to make spring quarter finals optional for students involved in or impacted by Black Lives Matter protests. Later, Ayad redoubled his longstanding efforts to designate a prayer space for Muslim students on campus.
“Just doing good is something that I’ve learned growing up from my religion and from my parents,” Ayad says. “It’s not necessary that you need something out of it to do something good, right? Sometimes just doing good for the sake of doing good is what’s important.”