Today's student activists:; MARCHING TO A PRAGMATIC DRUMMER

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On a Monday morning in San Francisco's financial district, 22-year-old Brian Dvorak looks like any other three- piece-suited researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank. It's not surprising to learn this serious-minded, bearded young man was an honors graduate in economics at the University of California at Berkeley and president of the Berkeley College Republicans, or that he comes from a family of businessmen.

Unlike most young bankers, however, Brian considers his job a two-year layover en route to a lifetime career fighting world hunger.

"I underwent big changes in my junior year," he says. "I abandoned the Republicans, worried about my role in society, and read constantly. 'Food First ,' a book by Frances Lappe [and Joseph Collins], really impressed me. And once I was convinced that world starvation could be beaten, I switched from the 'Get Money' game to the 'Fight Hunger' game."

Recommended: Default

Brian became a volunteer researcher at Hunger Project's headquarters in San Francisco, where he was soon spending 40 hours a week. Now he puts in about 30 after-work hours."I may eventually get a job with Hunger Project or the World Bank," he says. "Either way, I'm determined to make a difference, to change things."

Fifteen years ago -- during the anti-Vietnam and pro-civil rights movements -- it was commonplace for 22-year-olds to talk this way. Today, a prevalent image of campus life suggests a herd of career-bent students tramping through the portals of law and business schools, flattening underfoot the idealistic values associated with the student movement of the '60s and early '70s. But according to many counselors, students, and spokesmen for social service agencies, that image may not be entirely accurate.

"We may not get as many calls as we did during the Vietnam era, but we get fewer naive do-gooders. And one person with skills is worth five equally well-intentioned people without them," says Margaret Bacon, assistant director of information for the American Friends Service Committee. "More kids today have a sophisticated long-term-goal perspective on international problems. It is different from the old attitude of 'we're in the struggle -- until the war is over,'" she adds.

No current domestic or overseas situation has enough impact to catapult undergraduates out of libraries and classrooms. Nevertheless, 4.5 percent of incoming freshmen in 1980 indicated that there was a "very good chance" they would participate in a demonstration during college -- the same percentage as among 1968 freshmen, according to "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall," a lengthy questionaire distributed annually to freshmen at over 550 campuses by the Cooperative Institutional Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"The activist potential is always there. What's missing is an issue that will galvanize campuses," says Dr. Alexander Astin, a professor of education at UCLA, who began the surveys in 1966. In the absence of such an issue, students who tackle social problems are out of step with classmates, and often make their commitment only after a spell of introspection.

Each year Harvard University seniors complete a questionnaire indicating the professional fields they want to enter. From 1973 to 1979, interest in engineering and business climbed, but there was no corresponding decline in the quest for social-service jobs. Those people pursuing so-called alternative careers, like VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) or public-service work, remained a constant 2 percent of the class.

"There has always been a small, steady core of people interested in social-change work," says Peter Rainey, assistant director of Harvard's office of Career Services. "Many other student jumped on that bandwagon during the '60 s, but in most years these kids are very special."

Dr. Harriet Rose, director of counseling at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, reports that "their dedication may go deeper than that of activists in the past. They face a much tougher economic situation and they get so little peer support. Most of other kids think they're wasting their time."

"It will be weird to see people at Homecoming," says Betty Anne Donnelly, a vivacious Irish beauty who graduated from Georgetown University last year with a degree in development economics. "One person will be in law school, another in business school. 'How about you, Betty Anne?' they'll ask. 'Me? I'm going to be a Maryknoll lay missionary in peru.'" She groans. "Ohhh, brother."

Betty Anne will actually spend much of her three years in Lima studying the impact of World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies on Peru. She will also live and work in the city's ghettos before she returns to the United States to attend graduate school. "Another degree would make me more useful overseas," she says. "But wherever I am, I'll be doing antipoverty work rooted in my faith."

In college, Betty Anne lobbied in Washington for an international group, Bread for the World, and was co-author of a book on overseas relief work. Deciding between the church and Chase Manhattan Bank required months of "thinking and praying," she says. "But once I was sure, it was so nice to quit worrying about high-powered jobs."

Employment is a legitimate concern for students and in many cases tends to temper altruism. Ten years of Labor Department statistics show the gap is closing between jobless rates for people aged 20 to 24 who college degrees and those who do not. As recently as 1978 the percentage of unemployed college graduates in this age group exceeded the percentage of unemployed people in the general population. Students understandably try to sniff out the fastest-growing employment areas.

The "American Freshman" surveys reveal shifts in undergraduates' career objectives and values. The period from 1970 to 1979 witnessed a huge growth of interest in engineering and business and an ever dwindling interest in the arts and humanities. Forty percent of the entering freshmen in 1968 indicated that being well off financially was an "essential or important" goal as compared with 63 percent of the respondents in the 1980 entering class. "There may be a hard core of humanists, but undergraduates are generally more materialistic, more interested in status and power, than ever before," Dr. Astin says.

Even today's humanists are more materialistic, more apt to obtain highly marketable degrees than their predecessors in the '60s. "The spirit of that era was largely antim -institutional," says Brian Dvorak, who considers graduate studies in international banking a good first step toward an influential position in the antihunger field. "If you want to changem institutions, you better understand how they work on the inside."

There is also a frank recognition of the role of hard cash in affecting social change. "We rely on our investments in securities and bonds, but 60 percent of our operating expenses come from fund raising," says Neville Reid, a 19-year-old Harvard prelaw student. "Kids would rather give money than time, which they save for studying." Neville, a handsome, soft-spoken black undergraduate, raises money for Phillips Brooks House, a campus community service group.

"There has been a massive resurgence of fund raising on campuses, and people are very sophisticated about it," says Beth Griffin, a publicist for the Catholic Relief Services. "In the '60s, kids called up and simply said, 'Tell us where to send the money.' Now they start by asking for all our literature, an annual budget, and an account of where every dollar goes. When money is tight, they naturally want to get the most out of every nickel they take in and give away."

The current economic crunch may make part-time volunteers out of would-be lifetime crusaders, like 24-year-old Glenn Dickter, a tall, dark-haired conservationist who graduated in health administration from Pennsylvania State Unversity. His commitment to environmentalism began with a "road to Damascus" type of revelation. His road led through Harrisburg, Pa., the weekend of the Three Mile Island accident.

"I was on a bus that got stuck in the harrisberg depot, which was jammed with people crying and screaming," Glenn says. "It was just terrifying, and I decided right then that I had to do something about the nuclear situation. I knew zerom about the subject and I'd never done any volunteer work except high school recycling; I'd broken a few bottles." Today he is president of the Pennsylvania League of Conservation Voters, which analyzes legislators' voting records on environmental issues.

"I'd like to do this work indefinitely, but I couldn't support a family on the kind of salary that is typical in this field," he says. "Salaries generally range between $8,000 and $10,000. I've made a firm two-year commitment to this work, but frankly, I look forward to that day when I have a great job and can write a huge check every year to my five favorite conservation groups."

Glenn Dickter seems more typical of today's idealists than Betty Anne Donnelly. There has been a clear shift from overseas volunteerism to national and local projects, which allow people to combine their concern with a conventional life style. That trend is reflected in a comparison of the recent development of the Peace Corps, which demands a two-year overseas commitment, and VISTA, the government's antipoverty program which requires a one-year pledge. In 1967, the Peace Coprs received about 50,000 applications and accepted 12,000 volunteers. In 1980, it received 18,000 applications and placed 3,500 people.

Meanwhile, VISTA, after shrinking in the early '70s, has grown steadily for the last four years. Today some 5,000 volunteers (70 percent of them women) serve in grass-roots organizations. VISTA'S future, however, is uncertain. The Reagan administration has proposed phasing out the volunteer organization by 1983, if Congress approves.

VISTA director Marjorie Tabankin has observed that many of the new volunteers find ways to help others and also help themselves. She cites two journalism graduates who had trouble finding jobs because they lacked practical experience; as VISTA volunteers they spent a year in a Wisconsin town, launching and managing a community newsletter. "They're typical of many applicants today -- concerned, motivated, and very practical," she says.

Concerned . . . motivated . . . practical. It is tempting to look for common traits among the very different young dogooders; but only one noteworthy characteristic emerges: 4 of the 10 students and recent graduates interviewed were from large families (with more than four children). Dr. Thomas J. Cottle, a Harvard psychologist, observed the same phenomenon when he interviewed groups of teen-age students already strongly interested in "helping careers."

"Typically, the girl has been mother's helper or the boy has done a lot of baby-sitting. Altruistic work attracts them because they're grown up nurturing a mini-community," Dr. Cottle explains. "Occasionally there is a trace of I'm giving to others the attention that I never got myself' and a submerged resentment of parents. However, some kid may rebel against his folks and run off to work on an Indian reservation -- and discover six months later that he really loves the situation."

Parental influence can be crucial for the young activist, especially in the current vacuum of peer support. Parents may be warmly encouraging or bitterly critical, but they are rarely indifferent. When Glenn Dickter went to work for an environmental group, his parents said: "Who are these people? Moonies? Why can't you get a normal job?" But other people describe a strange reversal of these dinner-table scenes in which sons and daughters shook their heads over their parents' pathetic stodginess. Today some of the straightest-looking freshmen on campus have mothers and fathers who were '60s protesters or at least sympathetic sideliners.

"Dad kept saying, 'If school is meaningless, go do something meaningful.' I kept saying, 'I can't, I can't' -- until I realized that I sure could," says Michelle Hallett, a 22-year- old blue-eyed blond Chicagoan who radiates competence. Her father is a professor and Lutheran minister and her mother is a psychiatric social worker. Both of them were freedom riders in the South.

With their approval, Michelle left college and flew to Phoenix to do research and fund raising for Arizonains for a better Environment. She receives a $6,000 annual stipend and admits that the finances are "the toughest part of the life style." She wants eventually to have an engineering degree and a career doing environmental-impact studies of proposed government projects.

The Arizona group's own studies are distinguished for objectivity and have been used by proponents of nuclear power as well as solar energy. "It's vital, especially in a conservative state like Arizona, that citizens of all political persuasions feel they can trust a few nonpartisan sources," Michelle says. "You can't stack the cards in favor of any one side."

Her concern about impartiality makes Michelle resist political characterization. "People who label themselves 'idealists' or 'leftists' often can't compromise in essential ways," she says. "You can't say: I won't ask that family for a donation -- how can they care about conservation with three Cadillacs in the front yard?' Nor can you say, 'That person looks too poor to hit up for a dollar.'"

She isn't alone in spurning the designation as an idealist, as if that hadn't once been a respectable thing for students to be. ("that term rings of the Kennedy era with all its unkept promises," Neville Reid says. "It implies a failure to follow through a plans," Betty Anne Donnelly agrees.) Instead, young men and women today describe themselves variously as a realist, an idealistic pragmatist, a romantic, a pragmatic activist, and a Christian.

Such self-perceptions reflect many student's reluctance to adopt clear political stripes. In the American Freshman surveys, the percentage of self-styled liberals declined from 36.7 percent of the 1972 respondents to 19.6 percent in 1980. Conservatives represented about 18 percent of both classes. However, the "middle of the road" contingent swelled from 39.7 percent of freshmen in 1972 to 60 percent in 1980.

"I don't feel aligned with any group," Michelle Hallett says. "Rather, I see myself as a citizen in the classical Greek sense -- someone involved in the decisions confronting a community. That usually means providing the public with information."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...