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Making an Impact: Effective Activism for Master’s Student

Discover your potential for making a difference as a master’s student by learning how to become an effective activist.

Author: Angela Myers

Editor: Staff Editor

As a master’s student, you have expertise that’s useful inside and outside the classroom. If you’re looking to make an impact, activism is a common and effective approach for many master’s students—and it’s on the rise.

Between 2015 and 2022, student interest in activism increased by over 40%, according to a study by the Education Advisory Board. Yet despite this increased interest, many master’s students are unsure how to get involved. Should you join a protest against climate change? Make TikToks about the importance of racial equality? While the opportunities to make a change are endless, choosing one or two causes and having an activism plan will make your efforts more impactful. This guide covers how to choose your cause, what platforms to utilize in your efforts, and other tips to become a master of change.

Common Causes Sparking Graduate Activism

Graduate students get involved in activism on behalf of a variety of causes, from affordable housing to the climate crisis. If you still haven’t decided what cause you want to take on—or you’re looking for inspiration on how others have advocated for popular causes—check out the five most common graduate activism causes and the master’s students who are game changers for each.

Affordable Housing

Why Master’s Students Care: As a master’s student, you might have experienced firsthand that affordable housing can be hard to come by. Pursuing your master’s degree places a financial burden on top of your regular living expenses, making it difficult to cover both academic and housing costs. Some master’s students use this real-world experience to advocate for more affordable housing options in their city.

Inspiration: Savannah Baker, a former Master of Social Work student at the University of South Carolina, is an example of a master’s student who found it difficult to afford housing. Based on her experience and talking with other members in her community, she applied for Habitat for Humanity’s Emerging Leaders Scholarship. Through this program, she advocated for affordable housing options worldwide.

Gun Control

Why Master’s Students Care: It’s no secret the U.S. has far too many mass shootings, including many on college campuses. To help make campuses and communities safer, many master’s students form activist groups and attend protests to advocate for gun control and reform.

Inspiration: In recent years our nation has faced an unprecedented number of shootings. In response, last year Harvard student, March for Our Lives founder, and Parkland survivor Jaclyn Corin organized a summer of action. College students around the country spent the summer attending protests, talking to legislators, and taking other steps toward gun reform.

Mental Health and Well-Being

Why Master’s Students Care: Stress, anxiety, and depression are as common as late-night study sessions for master’s students. One study of a bioscience program in the University of California system placed the number of master’s students with anxiety or depression at up to 46%. Because so many graduate students have experienced mental health problems, many want to advocate for more resources for emotional well-being on and off campus.

Inspiration: After realizing how underequipped many primary schools are to handle students’ mental health concerns, 20 students in the MEd in Counselor Education program at the University of Virginia (UVA) created a handout explaining the importance of these programs. They then attended the Virginia School Counselor Association’s annual “Legislative Day” and handed the pamphlets out to legislators to advocate for change.

Social Justice and Equity

Why Master’s Students Care: Social justice is an issue that impacts everyone. As a master’s student, you’re likely to be exposed to societal problems such as gender or racial inequality. Many master’s students decide to advocate for equity within their field and larger communities.

Inspiration: Many students express social justice advocacy either through their thesis or educational policy reform. Austin McCoy, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, did both. He helped his undergraduate alma mater improve its diversity policies and studied the link between incarceration and race for his thesis.

The Climate Crisis and Sustainability

Why Master’s Students Care: 26% of students believe climate change is the most pressing issue facing society today. Many of these students are using their voice and education to advocate for governmental policies and societal actions to prevent the progression of climate change.

Inspiration: Precious Nyabami, a University of Florida master’s student, wanted to use her degree in soil and water science to create long-lasting change. She devoted her master’s thesis to this work and discovered a new way for farmers to capture carbon. She then went on to develop a program to share this method with Florida farmers.

Explore Powerful Platforms to Advance Your Passion

Now that you’ve solidified your cause, it’s time to determine your method of distribution, meaning the platform you want to use to express your ideas. Campus events, petitions, presentations, social media posts, and strikes are some of the most common methods, though each has advantages and disadvantages.

Campus Events

How they can be used: Campus events are a great way to come together for a common cause. After the shooting at UVA last year, the school’s chapter of March for Our Lives organized a campus-wide event to advocate for gun control.

Advantages: Campus events are a great way to advocate for a cause that directly impacts your school. These events can also spread awareness to those who aren’t familiar with the cause.

Limitations: Since the event happens at one specific time, it’s impossible for it to fit into everyone’s schedule. A live event can also be impacted by weather and other activities occurring on campus at the same time.

Petitions and Letters

How they can be used: Petitions and letters, like the petition created by UVA students for more primary school mental health resources, are a great way to bring your concerns to legislative bodies in your local government and at nonprofits.

Advantages: Petitions and letters are aimed directly at decision-makers, meaning they often bring about change faster.

Limitations: For anything to happen, you have to get the decision-makers to read your petition or letter, which is often out of your control.

Public Speaking and Presentations

How they can be used: One of the best ways to raise awareness for a cause is to create a presentation on the issue to share at local organization meetings, industry-specific conferences, and on campus. For example, master’s students in The University of Kansas Men’s Action Program often do presentations on sexual violence prevention strategies for campus organizations.

Advantages: Presentations are a great way to reach new organizations and audiences who might be unfamiliar with the cause. Since you’re usually invited to speak, you also know your audience is interested in learning more.

Limitations: While a great educational tool, it can be hard to get people to take action after a speech. Public speaking is also something students commonly fear, making this an uncomfortable method for some master’s students.

Protests

How they can be used: Protests are organized events that bring together groups of people with the same concern. Often, the aim of a protest is to get the attention of those who aren’t in favor of your cause or decision-makers. Cornell University graduate students recently used this method to advocate for better pay and more university support.

Advantages: Protests bring your concerns right to the community’s doorstep. They’re an interactive way to advocate for your cause—and to show just how many people in your community care.

Limitations: Since protests can be seen as adversarial, they don’t always change the opinions of those on the other side. The logistics can also be tricky since you usually need to acquire a permit to protest in public.

Social Media

How it can be used: Want to make your cause go “viral”? Turn to Instagram or Twitter. With a strategic social media campaign, you can spread awareness about your cause and educate followers on how they can help.

Advantages: Social media is one of the fastest ways to share information about your cause, events you’re organizing, and actions others can take.

Limitations: You can’t control who your audience is on social media, so this might not be the best method for local events. For example, if you created a video about a beach clean-up event in your town and posted it on TikTok, it won’t be limited to being viewed only by those in your geographical area, making it harder to reach people who can actually participate.

Strikes and Boycotting

How they can be used: When demands aren’t being met, utilize your labor or purchasing power to create action with a strike or boycott. A strike is when you stop working, such as when master’s students at the University of Illinois went on strike to raise awareness of their low teaching assistant pay. A boycott is when you stop purchasing a product or using a service to protest the actions of the company or seller.

Advantages: A strike or boycott can be powerful because you’re taking away something someone needs (either your patronage of their business or your own labor).

Limitations: At the same time, a strike can put your job on the line. If a strike goes poorly, you could lose your position. With a boycott, you need a large number of customers to stop buying a product or using a service to make an impact.

6 Steps to Becoming a Master of Change

When you’re first starting your activism journey, it can be overwhelming to know what to do first, much less how to transform from a master’s student into a master of change. Luckily, there’s a process you can follow to go from wanting to get involved to being a leading advocate for your cause. To simplify that process, we broke down how to become an effective, impactful activist into six easy-to-follow steps.

Step One: Find Your Why

The first step to becoming an activist is to determine your cause and why you support it. If you have yet to decide on a cause, jot down a list of issues that matter to you. After you have your list, ask yourself, “Which am I most that passionate about?” That one is most likely the why you should advocate for.

Step Two: Research and Learn

After you have your cause, it’s time to do what master’s students do best: Learn. Research different organizations and individuals in your community and on the national level who are involved in your cause. For example, a student who wanted to create an advocacy program for engineering students’ mental well-being could research what resources are already available on campus and similar organizations at other colleges.

Step Three: Connect with Like-Minded Peers

The saying “It takes a village” doesn’t just apply to raising a child—it’s also relevant to advocacy work. Instead of trying to create change on your own, connect with peers interested in the same topic. Your campus might already have an organization or, if not, you can create one. A student who wanted to stop the climate crisis could either join their campus’s Sierra Club or start their own branch.

Step Four: Dream Big and Determine Your Goals

After you have your cause, research, and like-minded peers, it’s time to dream big. Do a group brainstorm on the best advocacy methods. When you have your list of ideas, determine which are most feasible and create a SMART goal for each.

Step Five: Decide the When, Where, and How

Once you have your goals in place, it’s time to take your cause to the community. Decide when, where, and how you’ll share your message. During this step, make sure to keep it simple and focus on one advocacy effort at a time. Creating a social media campaign for gender equality will be less overwhelming than trying to create a campaign, organize an in-person event, and boycott corporations that don’t have female executives.

Step Six: Take Action

Once you have your goal and platform, it’s time to take action, which will look different for everyone. Some will post on social media and others will organize a community event. No matter how you move forward, remember to follow through, even if you’re nervous.

Bonus Step: Continuously Reflect and Evaluate

Throughout your activism journey, it’s important to reflect on what is and isn’t working. Evaluate past events and actions in terms of effectiveness, community response, and how easy the action was to manage with your graduate studies. Through reflection, you can become an even more impactful activist moving forward.

Master’s Student Online Activism Toolkit

While becoming a master of change can be tricky, you don’t have to do it alone. There are plenty of online and in-person tools that can help at any stage of your activism journey. Check out these free online resources related to specific causes or to organizing activism efforts.

Creating a Prevention Program: Futures Without Violence has a free webinar for student organizations and colleges that want to create a sexual violence prevention program. Their process to set up a program can be applied to other causes as well.

Creating Diverse Graduate Campuses: This article from Higher Education Today covers how students and faculty can advocate for diverse graduate campuses. It provides specific steps to take to increase the diversity of your program.

Habitat for Humanity: If you’re passionate about ensuring everyone in your community has access to affordable housing, check out the volunteer and advocacy opportunities with this international nonprofit.

How to Create an Advocacy Workshop: All in Together has posted the transcript from a webinar they created for college and graduate students about advocacy workshops. In it, they walk you through how to scaffold an effective presentation or workshop on a social justice cause.

How to Plan a Peaceful Protest: PEN America offers a free guide on how to organize a peaceful protest on your campus. The guide covers everything from getting the permit to dealing with counter-protestors.

Leadership Institute: This organization provides in-person and online resources for students who want to make a change in their community. The Student Activism Conference is one of the institute’s most popular events.

March for Our Lives: This nationwide organization works with individuals and groups who want to take action in favor of gun control. Local universities also host campus chapters and organize their own events.

Sierra Student Coalition: Looking for ways to slow the climate crisis? The Sierra Club Student Coalition organizes events at campuses across the country, as well as nationwide student events, to advocate for climate justice.

Social Media Strategy for a Cause: While aimed at nonprofits, Canva’s design and social media tips can be used by any organization that wants to maximize their cause’s online presence.

Starting a Boycott: Check out the Ethical Consumer’s guide to creating a boycott with long-lasting impact.

Firsthand Account: Hear from a Graduate Student Activist

Mirna Vuksan

Mirna Vuksan is the marketing director for Lonely Axe. Before taking on this role, she got her master’s degree in sociology and ran a community center that helped those in need. As part of the center, she helped with tasks such as collecting and preparing food, collecting clothes, maintenance of the space, and organizing events.

How do you balance your academic responsibilities with your activism efforts as a master's student?

I wouldn’t say I did the best job balancing my academic responsibilities with my activism efforts while I was a graduate student, but as a master’s student I got better at it and learned to take time for my education. I learned to take on only what I could manage to do. I took on fewer obligations but chose activities with a greater community impact. It’s important to properly assess what you will be able to do with quality and let go of the things that may not be of the utmost importance at the time.

What inspired you to become a master's student activist?

I became a volunteer at a local community center in a rather spontaneous way. I spent time with a group of people who were planning on opening the center, so I became a part of it because I spent a lot of time with them. I gradually started to learn more about how to run a food bank, run financial workshops, and provide other services to those in need through a community center. Eventually it became a big part of my life and shaped who I am as a person.

Can you share a specific experience or accomplishment in your activism journey that had a significant impact on you or your cause?

Honestly, the biggest impact was achieved merely by meeting and being around different kinds of people. I think that was very beneficial for my overall point of view and way of thinking.

How did your field of study influence your activism, and vice versa?

Since I studied sociology, it was very connected with activism. My studies have shifted my focus on the things that are problematic in society. Also, the activities I have done in the community center have informed my behavior, perception, and way of thinking. It was definitely an experience that broadened my knowledge and enriched my ability to comprehend and deal with certain issues.

What challenges do master's student activists face, and how can they overcome them?

The difficulty of balancing academic obligations with activism made finishing my master’s degree very difficult. Getting your master’s degree is a time-intensive process, so you don’t have a lot of time to spend on activism. It helped me to set time to focus solely on my studies and to get as much done in that time as I could. Also, it’s not a bad thing to connect your field of study with your activism. One can inform the other and that way you are making the most out of both your activism and your studies.

Can you share any advice or lessons learned for other master's students who want to become effective activists?

As much as it can be a quality activity, keep in mind not to sacrifice your goals and stay focused on finishing your studies. Also, never sacrifice your mental or physical health in the name of a cause.

What strategies do you recommend for maintaining motivation, resilience, and self-care as a master's student activist?

I would recommend staying authentic and true to yourself. Don’t do anything that makes you really uncomfortable but also try to view certain situations as growing and learning experiences. Try to put your health first but remember it’s important to gain as much experience as you can.