“I’m pretty bummed that NYU had to close down and all the senior events had to be canceled — it all still feels so crazy and surreal,” lamented one New York University student I mentor as an alumna.
I couldn’t help but commiserate with her and all the seniors graduating this semester. On March 10, NYU joined colleges and universities across the nation in closing its classrooms and dorms, and moving to remote instruction to help stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
It made me recall May 1970 when NYU was one of hundreds of universities, colleges and high schools across the country that were shut down by strikes and protests, involving more than 4 million students.
I was part of that first general student strike, one of the largest student protests in the history of the United States, while attending NYU’s Bronx campus. Students protesting the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War with the invasion of Cambodia on April 30 were spurred on by the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio by National Guardsmen on May 4. The widely supported strike rendered NYU classes shuttered, exams canceled, and grades went to pass/fail (an option given to today’s students).
Unlike this spring’s closings, where students relinquished their social interaction, in 1970 the campus was abuzz with strike activities, leafleting, teach-ins, rallies, circulating of petitions, and activist’s speeches. Yet, despite these and other differences in the two shutdowns, this 50th anniversary of the 1970 events invites comparisons with today’s campus closings.
It is significant that both generations of students heard nightly news report of escalating body counts — with deaths in the United States related to COVID-19 surpassing American fatalities in the Vietnam War. This has had an emotional impact on students now, as it did then.
In May, grad students at NYU and Columbia University took action by staging sickouts and strikes to protest lack of support from their schools. The students need extra funding to extend research due to closed archives, travel bans, and lost summer positions because of the pandemic. Columbia students struggle to pay rent on housing that is owned by their employer — the university.
With colleges unsure about opening in the fall, about 1-in-5 American students are undecided about plans to re-enroll in the fall. My mentee has opted to take a gap year between graduation and medical school, although the questionable availability of jobs, international travel and hands-on volunteer work leaves her uncertain about how she will fill the year.
My university colleagues also took time off — some to re-evaluate what they wanted to do, some to continue organizing unencumbered by school commitments, some to join organizations deemed more relevant to the needs of society than school was at the time.
Most importantly, both generations are marked by a period of social upheaval and uncertainty, making them part of a defining moment in history. There are always lessons to be gleaned from a crisis. In 1970, taking over the school and raising the banner “People’s University” across the entrance, was an action that felt very empowering.
In unity with students across the country, anything was possible. The student activism of my generation ended the Vietnam War and the draft, dropped the voting age to 18, and unseated a president. The anti-war movement — together with parallel movements for black power, women’s rights, gay rights, the environment and others, went on to make progressive changes that continue to impact society.
Higher education changed as well. The existence of experiential learning programs and majors such as “women’s studies,” “African American studies” and “conflict resolution” grew out of student dissatisfaction with classes they found irrelevant to events of the times.
Yet many of the hopes of my generation have not come to fruition. Racial, economic and health care inequality still exists, exemplified now by the higher proportion of COVID-19 cases and deaths in low-income neighborhoods, and among African Americans and Latinos. Racism and sexism are still with us, climate change looms, while wars and military actions continue.
It’s too early to learn everything the current generation can take from this challenging time, but in several ways, they already have demonstrated their strength and power. Instead of having a senior year of celebrating as a community, they have not only accepted, but embraced and thrived with online classes. They made a sacrifice to stay home and keep their community healthy.
And it worked.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared in one of his daily briefings, “We’ve shown we can control the beast.” Many students have used the power of volunteering to help others during the pandemic.
The problems unsolved by my generation are left to this one. As the world begins to heal, it needs their talents to continue the fight for justice, equality, the environment, and peace.
Former President Obama exhorted this generation to bring about change by “strategy, action, organizing, marching and voting … like never before.”
Some things never change.
The author is an adjunct lecturer in neuroanatomy at CUNY School of Medicine.