Every student deserves the chance to tell their story.
Three years ago, to me, the daily proceedings at the vast majority of schools across my home state of Washington seemed almost identical. At my suburban high school, students' experiences seemed dominated by fighting for a spot in the overcrowded parking lot, complaining about the heavy workload of their rigorous schedules and rushing between various extracurricular activities—all relatively uniform and mundane issues. Since I had no alternative experiences, I saw no reason why any students' experiences would be significantly different from my own.
Everything changed when I received the opportunity to meet and listen to the stories of students who lived just two hours away from me. As I journeyed across the Cascade mountains, the bustling cities of western Washington, where I reside, were replaced by the sparsely populated, small agricultural communities of eastern Washington—a contrast so stark that it seemed impossible to me that the two regions could be part of the same state.
Instantly, I felt like I had been living in a bubble. I learned that the school I attend, which offers a broad range of advanced courses, is equipped with modern technology and has a graduation rate that regularly topped 90%, was drastically different from schools across the state. The students I met had to drive up to an hour every morning to go to classes, and their schools did not offer a single advanced course.
Later, I would also learn that the disparities between our schools weren't a coincidence. They were the result of a broken system, shaped by discriminatory policies surrounding school funding, segregation and housing. Although I am a beneficiary of the inequities in the educational system, I instantly knew I had to take action. I absolutely couldn't remain complacent after seeing the problems in schools first-hand.
The experiences of the students I met not only opened my eyes to the scope of educational inequity, but also reminded me that it existed in my community. When I served as their audience, I learned to think outside of my narrow worldview, built genuine understanding and respect for others and was galvanized into taking action.
From the nationwide movement sparked from the tragic experiences of survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting to the policies surrounding sexual harassment on college campuses—modified in response to public pressure from survivors, across the country, students are proving the power of sharing their stories. Through digital journalism, a quickly evolving platform, young leaders are speaking out, listening to their peers and building broad coalitions.
Teenagers might not have the ability to run for office, vote or even drive in some cases, but through journalism and social media, they can generate meaningful change.
Now, I'm continuing to broaden my perspective by reading the accounts of Student Voice's journalism fellows—a cohort of 18 high-school-aged students from across the country with an immensely diverse, yet invariably impactful range of perspectives on issues in education around the country.
Through the Student Voice Journalism Fellowship, Student Voice aims to amplify the voices of underrepresented, underserved students to tell the stories of their schools and create social change. Through providing a diverse cohort of fellows with professional training and access to a network of reporters, storytellers and communications professionals, Student Voice hopes to offer student-centric perspectives and solutions to contribute to the broader educational conversation and to combat educational inequity.
Words and experiences are powerful. I know first-hand that stories shared by students can erase ignorance and turn opinions on their heads. Knowing how to use the media and spark viral movements can be a tremendous equalizer in providing voice and, subsequently, power to students who've been disenfranchised by the educational system. We all have an obligation to amplify the voices of those who are unheard, as paradoxically, it is their voices that often say the most.
I believe every student in America should be provided with the knowledge, resources and connections to transform their experiences into action. While this program doesn't create structural change, it's a good start to build the leaders of tomorrow who will create it.
Interested students can apply for this program through Friday, August 23, on the Student Voice webpage.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Jenna is a high school senior at Eastlake High School in Sammamish, Washington.
She is currently a member of the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council (WALYAC), where she works to advise the Washington State Legislature on youth policy priorities. Through her work on WALYAC, she became both aware of and passionate about alleviating the educational disparities that exist between ...