MIAMI — Mo Tarafa stood before students at a small, outdoor concrete auditorium at Florida International University and called for volunteers to sit in the 10 chairs before her. Each chair, she said, represented 10 percent of the wealth in the United States and 10 percent of the population.
The students, mostly in their 20s and wearing jeans and T-shirts on a balmy fall Thursday afternoon in Miami, took their places. Then Tarafa asked nine of the students to squeeze together into five of the chairs. This, she said, was the distribution of wealth in 1996.
Next she asked nine students to fit into three of the chairs.
This, she said, is the distribution of wealth today.
"How are you all feeling right now?" she said.
"Uncomfortable," said one of the students piled up on one another.
The exercise was part of a teach-in that took place recently at FIU and dozens of other campuses across the country in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. As the protests have grown to cities across the United States, they've also taken root at the nation's universities, where students have staged rallies and walk-outs from classes. On Thursday, students were among the thousands who took part in protests across the country. They've even set up their own tent cities: At the University of California, Berkeley, where 40 people were arrested in a violent confrontation with police last week, officers removed 20 tents on Thursday. At Harvard University, dozens of students have set up tents in the middle of campus.
The students' concerns: The rising costs of tuition, seemingly insurmountable student debt and weak job prospects — issues unique to them, but which student organizers see as directly connected to the larger issues being raised by the Occupy protests.
"I love my education. I think it was completely valuable; however, I feel I'm not using it on a daily basis," said Natalia Abrams, 31, a recent UCLA graduate who has been helping organize students through Occupy Colleges, a loose coalition of universities across the country. "We didn't go back to school to have $20,000 in debt to work at Starbucks."
Whether the protests mark a rejuvenation of student activism in the United States is yet to be seen, but already some important distinctions are being made from their involvement in politics and society over the last few decades. In the 1960s, students held sit-ins to protest racial segregation and marched against the Vietnam War. But since then, activism on campus has tended to focus on specific issues, like rape awareness, anti-sweatshop campaigns and equality for gays and lesbians, notes Robert Self, a history professor at Brown University.
"There hasn't for a long time been a single issue like the civil rights or the war in Vietnam that brings a whole generation together," Self said.
Students at more than 120 universities have participated in protests so far. They range from students at private and Ivy League colleges, many who come from middle and upper class families, to those who work and attend state or community colleges full-time.
At Harvard, 70 students walked out of an introductory economics class taught by a former Bush adviser to protest what they called the "biased nature" of the class, which they said, "contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America."
Gabriel Bayard, 18, a student who helped organize the walk-out, said the professor, Greg Mankiw, "makes questionable statements and tries to pass them off as fact." He pointed, for example, to the argument that economic equality and efficiency are a zero sum game.
"There's mounting economic evidence that's not the case," Bayard said.
At Rhode Island College, students have held teach-ins where professors are brought in to give lectures on topics like the history of student movements. Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur, a sociology professor at the school, said faculty are brought in to offer their expertise but participate as equals.
"We have things we can offer by virtue of our study in these areas," Arthur said. "But that doesn't make us any more qualified to speak than they are."
Arthur said it's fairly typical for social movements to have large student participation, in part because they have more time available. But that isn't the case at her school, where a majority of students work and are from working or lower class families.
"We have students that aren't available and they are still making the time to be part of a movement," said Arthur, whose research focuses on student activism.
Debt from college loans and poor job prospects after graduation are two of the main points of contention for student protesters. The unemployment rate for students who graduated from college in 2010 was 9.1 percent, among the highest levels in recent history, according to the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research and policy organization dedicated to making college more affordable. Students graduated with an average of $25,250 debt, 5 percent higher than a year before.
The group Occupy Student Debt, another offspring of the protests, has started a website where students and graduates are posting pictures of themselves with a piece of paper detailing the amount they took out in loans and the amount they still owe. Many students describe taking out tens of thousands of dollars for school, and owing even more because of high interest rates.
"Many people at the protests which I'm going to are out there because of the student debt crisis," said Kyle McCarthy, 29, who started the website.
Like the larger Occupy protests, the students have not articulated specific goals, but say that isn't necessary, at least for the time being.
"If you look at successful social movements, their role has never been to lay out the specifics of policy details," said Guido Girgenti, 19, a sophomore at Occidental College.
He pointed to Martin Luther King, Jr. as one example.
"Dr. King traveled around America dramatizing the moral crisis that was the disenfranchisement of blacks in America," he said. "The Occupy Wall Street movement in the same way is dramatizing the moral crisis of economic injustice and the corporate takeover of democracy."
Girgenti, who has been working with Occupy Colleges, says students are working on a draft statement on a commitment to nonviolence and training organizers.
"Our core student organizers are coming together and asking, how do we make the transition from moment of protest to moment of movement?" Girgenti said.
In order to go from protest to movement, Self said students must shape grievances into demands. He noted that issues like finding a way to lower tuition are complicated by the fact that many fees at public universities are set by individual state boards and legislatures and would be difficult or impossible to address at a federal level.
Arthur, however, said the changes protesters are seeking go beyond fixes like lowering tuition.
"Those things are nice, but it's not going to change fundamentally the things that are at the root of the grievances the movement has," she said. "Those kinds of changes are much harder to enact politically, it's culturally where the change has to happen. And that cultural change is something already happening every day in the encampment, in the participatory nature of the meeting."
At Florida International University, two days of talks by professors and speeches ended with students sharing their stories and participating in group activities.6 comments on this story
In one, they divided into groups of five and picked an issue they had to illustrate through a student still life. One group chose the "the balancing act of the average American;" another the "1 percent of students who get to sit in class and pay attention."
One student sat in a chair looking at the professor, while the others were scrambling in the background worried about how to pay and dropping out.
Tarafa, an organizer with the group Seed305, went up to each one asked what they were feeling.
"Backwards," said one.
"Awkward," said another. "It's not enough."