Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Since the height of student activism in the 1960s, little research has explored how college students conceptualize and define activism for social justice. In addition, the extant literature on student activism has been limited in its treatment of marginalized communities, including Asian American students. Given an increase in students’ self-reporting that they expect to engage in student activism while in college (Eagan et al., 2016), students’ engagement in conventional forms of activism may be on the rise, but how contemporary activism is defined needs to be examined from the perspective of student activists themselves. Thus, contemporary notions of student activism may have implications for higher-education practice. Furthermore, in light of the perception that Asian American students generally do not engage with contemporary social justice activism, despite examples that evidence the contrary, exploring Asian American students’ engagement with social justice activism is critical.

The purpose of this qualitative study was to understand how self-identified Asian American college-student activists understand and define activism in terms of both awareness of social justice issues as well as actions and behaviors. This study utilized multiple semi-structured individual interviews with nine Asian American college students enrolled in colleges and universities across the U.S., including four-year public and private institutions. Data were interpreted through thematic analysis. Findings illustrate the influence of family histories and contexts; academic and cocurricular experiences; peer influences; and student-affairs and faculty mentors on participants’ awareness of and engagement in social justice activism. In addition, Asian American identity informed participants’ targets of activism, whether related to Asian American concerns or to broader social justice issues. Finally, findings demonstrate how Asian American students defined contemporary activism beyond traditional forms of action to include actions to educate oneself, one’s community, and others while being rooted in critical reflection and awareness of systems of oppression, their own social locations, and broader social justice concerns.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.