Volume 84 | Issue 3
May/June 2016

Student Activism Showcase: Toni Airaksinen

Toni Airaksinen, sophomore at Barnard College

Cause: support for underprivileged students

Toni Airaksinen
Shortly after setting foot on campus at Barnard College, I immediately sensed that I was different than my peers. As the first person in my family to graduate high school, my first semester commenced with a dizzying whirlwind of realizations: that I did not speak, act, or dress like my peers.

Having grown up on welfare, the deification of the Ivy League and the trappings of wealth were disconcerting. I became so discombobulated that observing and interacting with my peers felt like an act of voyeurism, as though I was a lowly, uneducated teenager looking through the kaleidoscope of wealth at a whole new world in which I did not know how to take part. 

Seeking an antidote to my discomfort, I joined a student group for first-generation students. After attending a first-generation conference at Brown University, I launched Columbia University Class Confessions, a Facebook page for students to anonymously share their concerns. As the page grew, everyone from students to adjuncts shared their responses and media such as BBC, NPR affiliates, NBC, and Bloomberg began to cover the page. While most of the sentiments expressed highlighted a sense of isolation similar to what I was feeling, it helped to uncover even more serious problems: food insecurity, homelessness, and extreme loan burdens.

After the page went viral and “confessions” pages spawned at a dozen other colleges, I received many emails from people wanting to help. My fellow organizers and I were able to channel that amorphous sense of “awareness” that we had raised into both student- and administration-supported solutions.

Although I did not think the Class Confessions page would become so popular, once I started waking up to emails from reporters, I realized that to not seize the opportunity to get students’ stories out would be a tragic mistake. Many people expressed incredulity at the notion of Ivy League students going hungry or facing homelessness. A few brave souls took their stories to the media, such as Anna Demidova, Columbia Class of 2017, who has admitted to sleeping in the Barnard student center and eating sugar packets for meals. Dozens of reticent others came to me personally. Having become the campus figure for poor students, I often get requests like: “Do you know how I can sign up for food stamps?” and once even: “Do you know what the best library to sleep in is?”

In a paroxysm of productivity, my friends and I commenced work on a number of ways we could address these issues. Within a few months, a student-run meal-swipe sharing system was created, an underground emergency housing system was spawned, and, from both the Barnard and Columbia administration, an emergency (albeit bandage solution) meal-swipe system was codified.

I’m supremely privileged compared to most of these people. As a result of sheer luck, I’m here on a full ride more or less due to Barnard’s generous financial aid and the help of the nonprofit College Now Greater Cleveland.

There can be no advocacy without collaboration. Fortunately, there are often people like renegade administrators, kind adjunct faculty, and passionate alums who want to have a hand in helping to make this campus more hospitable to the poor. When we see students sleep in student centers, work 40-plus hours per week during the semester, or even turn to sex work, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little assistance to help students fulfill their basic needs.

If you are looking to get involved in activism efforts, make sure that if you find a group advocating for your cause of interest, you also agree with their method of solving the problem. While joining “popular” movements can be a heady experience, often this can lead to groupthink and could prompt you to engage in activities with which you may not agree. Effective activism does not mean you have to compromise your morals and values and voluntarily place yourself in heavily tense, uncomfortable situations for the sake of the group.