23 Mar A Purposeful Protest: Lessons from the Stoneman Student Activists
On April 20th, 1999, I was at the tail end of my freshman year in high school. The school day itself wasn’t memorable, but I recall going to the gym afterwards with friends. We played basketball, then took a break.
“Hey, guys,” one of my friends said, returning from the water fountain, “there was some kind of school shooting. It’s on TV.”
We left the courts and walked towards the cardio equipment, where a row of televisions hung from the ceiling.
“Shots fired, explosions reported at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado,” read the ticker on a cable news channel. The video showed students running from the school in panic and police flooding the area.
My friends and I didn’t know how to process this. It seemed like an aberration. Things like that didn’t happen in schools. We collectively recalled when we were in sixth grade, and two eighth grade students at our middle school were arrested for devising a plot to detonate homemade bombs in the hallways. It made national news, but the crisis was averted.
The police had caught the suspects. The good guys won. Bad things didn’t happen at schools, right?
Columbine shattered that notion for us and many American students. Debates raged across the country over what was responsible for such savagery. Maybe it was bullying? Or anti-depressants. Or the violence on television and in video games.
Whatever it was, it didn’t seem like anyone was working to create meaningful change in the aftermath.
Things Don’t Change for 19 Years. . . Until They Do
This week, my news feed buzzed with reports of the latest school shooting in Maryland, as well as a hostage situation with an armed gunman at a Panera Bread across the street from Princeton University.
Large-scale gun violence has sadly become ubiquitous in American culture, but the events of February 14th, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School put it in a new perspective.
On that day, a nineteen-year-old named Nikolas Cruz walked into his former high school with an AR-15 rifle and murdered fourteen students and three staff members, wounding another seventeen.
This probably isn’t news to you. Though mass shootings, especially the 54% that involve intimate partners and families and not students, are underreported, the story of Stoneman was everywhere. But something was different.
After the tragedy, the student survivors took control of the narrative.
Within twenty-four hours of the mass shooting, angered and tearful Stoneman students were interviewed near the school on major news networks. Their sense of safety and trust was gone, they’d lost friends, and their raw pain was on display for the world.
What happened next is why the story stands out.
“It Happened Again” Becomes #NeverAgain
The students didn’t fade into the background, as happens with many school shootings when the news cycle churns onward and society collectively forgets—at least until the next incident.
The Stoneman students stuck around. They didn’t want us to forget.
Lawmakers, many who ignored or overruled gun control measures in the past, sent their “thoughts and prayers.”
The Stoneman students answered, “No, thanks.”
They didn’t want thoughts and prayers anymore. They wanted action. While still processing the trauma they had experienced, the students became the face of a movement.
With the slogan and hashtag #NeverAgain, the Stoneman students made — and are still making — their voices heard with the purpose of ending gun violence in America.
At a rally three days after the shooting, Emma González gave a speech that will go down in history. Fighting back tears, González presented a well-researched, impassioned, and impactful denunciation of gun culture and the lawmakers who enable it.
At the end, she invoked the misconceptions of pro-gun advocates, like “tougher gun laws don’t make people safer” and “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” answering each one with, “We call BS!”
It was an incredible display of passion, a brave and rare example of youth speaking truth to power, and it happened just three days after Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was turned into a crime scene.
A few days later, CNN held a televised town hall that allowed Stoneman students to face off with National Rifle Association (NRA) spokesperson Dana Loesch and one of Florida’s two United States Senators, Marco Rubio.
The kids were more than alright. They were unwavering. The sentiments were real. The students stumbled and fumbled at times, as any teenager thrust into the national spotlight would, but they did not let Loesch and Rubio off the hook.
In one of the most striking moments of the evening, Stoneman student Cameron Kasky stood steps away from Marco Rubio and repeatedly asked him if he would agree to stop taking money from the NRA. Rubio dodged the question. Kasky wouldn’t allow it.
Rubio seemed flustered, repeating the phrase that people and groups “buy into my agenda,” which didn’t help assuage the notion that politicians can be bought by lobbying interests. Kasky—at one moment mumbling, “I don’t friggin’ know,” at the end of a rambling question, and at another moment calmly doing crowd control—emerged as the more sincere and sympathetic of the two.
Kasky’s passion for the issue came from a very real place, one of sorrow and loss yet suffused with youthful hope that the future could be different. Senator Rubio was stodgy and evasive, the caricature of an untrustworthy politician who answers not to the masses but to the select few who fill his coffers.
Stoneman students 1, U.S. Senator 0.
It’s Not Easy To Lead a National Movement
This march forward hasn’t been without major challenges for the students. They have learned early on about the meaning of intersectionality, that a movement for one group cannot leave others behind.
Survivors of a school shooting are getting death threats because they’re advocating for gun control.
Nevertheless, they have persisted.
They started a gun safety group, Never Again MSD, the initials of their high school. A few of the students have penned op-eds and articles, and their voices have brought attention to American corporations in business partnerships with the NRA. In response, many companies ended those partnerships.
Tomorrow, Saturday, March 24th, 2018, is The March for Our Lives, a collaborative effort between Never Again MSD and Everytown, the largest nonprofit for gun safety in the nation. The primary march and rally are going to be in Washington, D.C, but there are 823 other concurrent events worldwide, and you can find one closest to you here.
It’s a movement, and almost nineteen years after Columbine, I hope it only gathers strength.
Perhaps most striking of all, the Florida legislature passed The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which was signed into law on March 9th, 2018. While the bill contains provisions for programs to arm teachers, a controversial notion, it mostly enacts measures of common sense gun control, such as raising age limits for purchasing firearms and banning bump stocks, devices that increase the firing rate of semiautomatic weapons.
This was a massive victory for Never Again MSD, especially because Florida is historically a state with minimal gun control. The legislative victory was spearheaded by Stoneman high school students, some who aren’t yet old enough to vote.
They changed the law, and their efforts continue.
Ordinary Lessons from Extraordinary Circumstances
Why am I telling the tale of the Stoneman students? Is it in the hopes that you, the high school student reading this, will walk to same path towards activism?
Not at all. I want you to walk your own unique path towards whatever it is you love or whatever stokes the fires of your passion to forge real change, no matter how small.
I don’t wish any of what’s happened to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to happen to you, nor do I expect you to become a crusader on the national stage. These students didn’t choose their path. They were handed an awful set of circumstances, but they chose how to respond to it.
There is much to learn from the Stoneman survivors, not least of which is how to persist in the face of tragedy, a lesson I wish these teens didn’t have to learn at such a young age.
They did more than survive, however. They thrived. They used their tragic experience as a springboard to a national conversation that will hopefully save lives in the future.
The lesson for the average student is to pursue causes and participate in activities that are meaningful to you. If you care about social justice issues, throw yourself wholeheartedly into clubs and organizations that make a difference, no matter how small. If you don’t, that’s okay, too.
Throw yourself wholeheartedly into whatever it is you care about.
Two Students, One Who Really Cares
Here’s an example of two students I’ve worked with in the past who participated in similar activities. Let’s call them Stella and Casey.
See if you can guess whose participation is meaningful and whose is perfunctory, which in addition to being a great SAT word, means, “with little genuine effort.”
Growing up, Stella often went without. Her mom worked two jobs, and for years they relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to pay for groceries. As Stella got older, life thankfully became more stable. During junior year of high school, she decided to volunteer one Sunday a month for an hour at her local community food center, which she says is her “way of giving back.” She works as a greeter, saying hi to the families that enter the center. Stella missed a few Sundays during swim season, but says she plans to volunteer one Sunday a month through the summer and then into senior year.
Casey had a relatively normal, comfortable childhood. During freshman year of high school, the pastor at Casey’s church announced a canned food drive to help the less fortunate during the holiday season. Casey volunteered to be the ‘student lead’ of the drive. When she was delivering food to one family, Casey met Vince, a single father of three children. He expressed his gratitude for the food, and Casey could never forget the tears in his eyes. That was the moment she decided that she wanted to do more, and she started a club called Students Against Hunger in her school. By sophomore year, it had fifteen members; by junior year, thirty. Casey hosts three fundraising events during the school year to collect money for meals, and her club has built relationships with over fifty families in the community.
It’s not difficult to discern whose participation is meaningful. While Stella has a backstory that could serve as a logical motivator, it doesn’t appear that she has committed a significant amount of time to this activity. One hour a month (with a few months missing) isn’t a major commitment.
Casey’s motivation, on the other hand, might easily be called into question if her participation was minimal. Considering her whole story, however, it does appear that the experience of meeting Vince and his family had a profound effect on Casey.
Regardless of motivation, it’s clear which of the two students is truly passionate about her activity.
The Stoneman students don’t have to prove their passion. We see evidence of it every day.
However, when your application arrives in the hands of admissions officers, they are going to call your passions into question as they examine the sincerity of each one.
Nobody sensible would look at the passionate work being done by Stoneman students like Emma, Cameron, David, and their peers and declare, “They’re not sincere.”
Why? Because we’ve all seen what they’ve been through, we’ve watched the transformation before our eyes, and we’ve been moved.
(Except for conspiracy theorists, who hold fast to false beliefs only because it provides perceived order in an otherwise chaotic world. The sad thing is that they don’t realize how destructive their false beliefs can be.)
I digress. My point with the Stoneman survivors is that most of us who hear their words or read their writing will not doubt their sincerity. Their journey has been public.
What about you? You’re a normal high school student, but you’re also passionate about your activities. People who know you, like your parents and friends, don’t doubt your sincerity.
When you present your college applications, however, admissions committees (AdComs) will be ceaselessly scrutinizing your sincerity. It’s their job.
They receive tens of thousands of applications, and we can agree it would be silly if they took every single one at face value. They don’t know the applicants personally.
You will have to prove the sincerity behind your passions.
How Can You Do This?
Your application provides four chances to prove your sincerity, and three of the four are in your control. First, let’s examine the one that isn’t.
Letters of Recommendation (LoR): I say that LoRs aren’t in your control only in the sense that you won’t be writing them. However, your behavior will directly influence the content within each one.
Pick the people who know you best — and can best attest to your passions — to write these. They can be teachers, coaches, activity leaders, and mentors. Resist the urge to have someone with an impressive title write you a recommendation if they don’t know you that well.
Activities List: This part of your application that will be heavily scrutinized, so take care and be honest when filling it out.
On the CommonApp form, you don’t get to write a narrative description for each activity, and that’s purposeful. The designers of the CommonApp know that allowing a wordy blurb would just give space for applicants to embellish.
Instead, you have to present the facts:
- Activity Type
- Name/Position (meaning leadership positions, if any)
- Participation Grade Levels (9, 10, 11, and/or 12)
- Timing of Participation (Hours Per Week, Weeks Per Year)
- Intend to Participate in College (Yes or No)
That last one is huge, by the way. If you’re truly passionate about something, chances are it’s a major part of your life that will carry on through college.
(For a crash course in editing your activities list, check out the second section of this previous blog post.)
Essay: A question I often get is, “Should I write my personal statement about my favorite extracurricular activity?”
It depends. The essay is your chance to showcase the best and most unique things about you, qualities that can’t be expressed in other parts of the application. If participation in this extracurricular is not only central to who you are but a defining characteristic, then yes, write about it.
If participation in the activity can be summarized on the CommonApp activities list without much more to say, then it’s not worth devoting an entire essay to it.
Interview: During my eight years of conducting admissions interviews, I always asked about extracurricular activities. Sometimes I would pose the question, “What are you most passionate about?”
You can tell a lot about an applicant by his or her answer to that question. Many become flustered, taking a few moments to consider the “right” answer, meaning the one they think the interviewer would most want to hear.
If I asked you, what would you say?
The answer should be on the tip of your tongue, and speaking about it should animate you. Your care and devotion should be evident. After all, that’s what it means to be passionate.
To bring back the earlier example of Casey, I asked her this question in a mock interview. She answered immediately, telling the story of meeting Vince and how she was inspired to start Students Against Hunger at her school.
Her answer revealed how much she cared about this activity, and her passion was sincere.
The interview is a great time to let your passions shine.
A Final Example
I presented the story of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivors to give an extreme example of students sincerely committed to a cause. Their work stands as an inspiration, not only to high schoolers but to once cynical adults who now have renewed faith in the power of activism.
Never Again MSD’s Delany Tarr
Let me provide you with a more relatable example of another student of mine. Let’s call him Ben.
Ben cared about the environment. He didn’t have any specific happenings in his past that led him to his passion. Rather, it was an ongoing issue he heard about growing up in one of the most polluted cities in the nation.
Ben wanted to make a difference. He told me of a few ideas he had, including one where he would approach local politicians to talk about passing a new Clean Air Bill. I admired Ben’s ambition and encouraged him to get to work, but each idea stalled.
That’s when Ben came up with a plan that was feasible, aligned with his passion, and held the potential for measurable results.
An op-ed in Ben’s city’s newspaper discussed the “disgusting” reality that very few local companies recycled used batteries, noting a statistic about how much battery trash ends up in landfills each year.
Ben decided that he could work to change that. He visited thirty local companies, proposing to collect all used batteries at the end of each week to properly recycle them. Over twenty agreed, and Ben collected dozens of large boxes (recycled!), bringing a few to each company with proper labels along with an eye-catching flyer that contained facts about the importance of recycling batteries.
At the end of the week, Ben went to each office, collected the boxes of used batteries, and drove them to the local recycling center—a simple act that took him an hour or two on a Friday afternoon.
Each week, he hauled over a hundred pounds of batteries, some weeks significantly more, that would have been otherwise trashed.
While Ben’s initial ambition to converse with local representatives to enact legislation had been lofty, he ended up devising an even better activity that aligned with his passion while creating meaningful, measurable change in the world around him.
In his application, Ben proved his actions were sincere. On his activities list, he noted the amount of time — hours per week, weeks per year — spent on battery collection. There was a memorable paragraph in his personal statement about it, too—the essay itself was about his larger aspirations of environmental change. After Ben was interviewed, he reported that the interviewer seemed genuinely impressed with the project, even asking how his own company could get involved.
Ben was passionate about a cause, and he translated this passion into his application.
Looking to the Future
No matter what grade level you’re in, it’s always a good idea to examine your activities, as well as your motivations behind them.
If you don’t really love something but you’re devoting a hefty amount of time to it, it’s better to get out of it sooner rather than later. It can be a difficult decision, but your time would be better spent pursuing your passions.
If you have a dozen mediocre activities clogging your schedule, know that it’s preferable to devote most of your time to one thing you really care about, instead of many things you don’t.
Consider your current and potential activities through the same lens.
Is this something I care about? Is there strong motivation behind it? Is my participation evolving, always moving forward towards some goal?
For the Stoneman students as well as Ben, the answer to all those questions is yes.
Whether it’s activism or sport, a creative endeavor or one that aspires towards social change, nobody should doubt your passion for it — including you.