In the year since Trump was elected, Pittsburgh college students have worked to find common ground | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In the year since Trump was elected, Pittsburgh college students have worked to find common ground

“I think it also as a result fostered a larger sense of community than I have ever felt in all of my life.”

In the year since Trump was elected, Pittsburgh college students have worked to find common ground
CP photo by Luke Thor Travis
Last year, college students gathered in Oakland for an anti-Trump march

Nov. 9, 2016, was a gloomy, gray day. The sky was overcast and the ground was wet, as students on Pittsburgh’s college campuses made the usual trek to Wednesday classes, though for many of them, that Wednesday was anything but usual. 

The night before, as election results flashed across TVs all over Oakland, Aya Shehata didn’t bother watching. She had a big exam the next day, so she figured her time was better spent studying. Besides, Hillary Clinton was going to win. Everyone knew it. Late in the night, as she sat in her bedroom with her Hillary T-shirt still on and her nose in her books, her roommate came in and delivered the news. 

“We sat on my bed and cried,” says Shehata, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh.

On Pitt’s campus, Nov. 9 was a day of mourning for many. Thousands of college students had walked into the polls for the first time the day before, finally old enough to cast their votes for the next president of the United States. Tufts University’s National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement reported that 48 percent of college students voted in 2016, while 45 percent voted in the 2012 election. 

“It was like walking into a wake. People were crying and their heads were bowed down while walking the streets,” says Marlo Safi, a senior at Pitt and president of Pitt College Republicans.

The devastation on campus was felt so acutely that as a result of a student petition which Shehata helped circulate, many professors — including her own — postponed their exams in the days immediately following the election. But in the year since, students at college campuses around Pittsburgh have adjusted. A new fervor for activism has been ignited, and students are now looking for ways to come together with those with opposing viewpoints.

“I think part of it was a lot of people realized that the things our society had gotten over, the hurdles we thought we’d jumped over, we actually hadn’t jumped over. A lot of people didn’t think that racism was still an issue,” Shehata says. “But, I think, it also, as a result, fostered a larger sense of community than I have ever felt in all of my life.”  

Shehata is a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, and after the election, she says her peers were voicing their support for her more than ever before. Shehata is president of a group called Female Empowerment Movement, which is just one of several student organizations on Pitt’s campus that has gained momentum since the election. 

“I do think that we’ve been shaken up a little bit, the pot has been stirred, and people are actually moving now,” she says.   

Shehata cites new campus initiatives like Women’s Empowerment Week, and Mental Health Awareness Week, as responses to the 2016 election. “A lot of these taboo topics and things that we don’t like to address are being addressed, and I think that that speaks to having a wakeup call and shaking people up and getting them talking about things that might make them uncomfortable,” she says. 

But liberal movements aren’t the only ones that have ignited a new level of passion on Pitt’s campus. Safi says that when she joined Pitt College Republicans, in 2014, it was lucky to have a handful of students consistently showing up to meetings. Now, the group has 50 students attending on a slow day. Whether they support Trump or not, Safi says, conservative students are interested in activism “now more than ever.” 

Safi, who is the editor of Pitt’s right-wing online magazine The Maverick, says that many of her conservative peers find themselves keeping their mouths shut to avoid the intimidation they feel from their liberal peers. But in an effort to generate more civil political discussion, Safi says they’re planning a debate between the Republican, Libertarian and Democratic groups on campus. And when the Westboro Baptists came, everyone protested against them together. 

“When Westboro Baptist came, it was a nice display of solidarity among all different student groups that this was something that we’re all morally opposed to. So, there are things that we are able to come together on,” Safi says. 

Indeed, not all college campuses have seen increased animosity between groups with opposing political viewpoints. Downtown, says Shivani Gosai, for the most part things haven’t changed at Duquesne University since the election. If anything, says Gosai, the community has become stronger. 

On the same day that the Westboro Baptists came to the city, Duquesne held an event called DUnited, with handouts of T-shirts that read, “Duquesne doesn’t hate.” 

Says Gosai, a junior: “I think at Duquesne we’ve been handling everything really well.”