Portraits of Resistance & Resilience: College Student Political Identity Development in the Context of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
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Redding, Alexis Brooke
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AbstractFostering the development of an engaged citizenry is one of the founding principles of American higher education (Bok, 2006; Reuben, 1996). After decades of concern about declining civic engagement among American college students, the 2016-17 academic year saw the rise of a new campus political movement. For students who started college in Fall 2016, their first year of school took place against the backdrop of a dramatic American presidential election and the emergence of this new wave of youth activism. My study follows students during this pivotal year as they grappled with the increasingly polarized political discourse and negotiated their roles in the emerging resistance movement.
I employ a multiple case study approach to examine groups of first-year students nested within three highly-selective, residential, liberal arts schools: Harvey Mudd College, Middlebury College, and Harvard College. Using the ethnographic method of portraiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997), I share the perspectives of 42 students from across the political spectrum captured in 109 in-depth interviews that I conducted throughout the academic year. Complementary data collected through field observations, document analysis, and focus groups allow me to analyze the experiences of students in light of the context, core values, and community norms on each campus.
Across the three schools, I documented a heightened awareness of political issues, increased participation in civic discourse, and extended engagement in marches and sit-ins among first-year students during the 2016-17 academic year. Yet, the goals of these students’ actions often reflected campus-specific trends. Students at Harvey Mudd embodied the school’s mission of ‘citizen-centered’ solutions as they focused on improving the lives of individual classmates. Middlebury students echoed their institution’s vision of community engagement when they acted together to preserve campus values. Harvard students answered the institution’s call for ‘citizen-leaders’ and focused their actions on national issues, mainly eschewing local concerns. Each of these political action orientations is tethered to messages about institutional values that were communicated to incoming students and undergird key aspects of each campus climate. Recognizing how students draw on this ‘hidden curriculum’ to frame their civic actions offers new possibilities for institutions of higher education as they strive to support the next generation of active citizens.
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