In Zimbabwe after 2000, ZANU(PF) leaders’ past experiences of student activism in Rhodesia were celebrated by the state-owned media as personifications of anti-colonial, nationalist leadership in the struggle to liberate the country. This article examines the history behind this narrative by exploring the entangled realities of student activism in Rhodesia throughout the 1960s and 1970s and its role as a mechanism of elite formation in ZANU(PF). Building on the historiography of African student movements, I show how the persistence of nationalist anti-colonial organizing and liberal traditions on campus made student activism in Rhodesia distinct from that in South Africa and independent African countries to its north. The article then examines how and why three former activists, who took up elite political careers in the party that they subsequently left, contested the ruling party's anti-colonial, ‘patriotic’ rendering of these experiences. These three men's stories invoked imagined and older forms of nationalism or institutional ethic that had been abandoned by the party as it turned to more authoritarian rule. Stories of Rhodesian student activism thus provided space for justifying alternative political possibilities of nationalism, which implicitly critiqued the ruling party's ‘patriotic’ narrative, as well as for nostalgic anecdotes of life on campus, their journeys into adulthood, and the excitement of being part of a dynamic, transformational political project.