Written by Oneida Shushe ’19
I landed in Boston very sleep deprived and hungry, not knowing what to expect of the 2017 Newman Civic Fellows National Conference. As I walked into the hotel lobby, I immediately made eye contact with welcoming faces. I stepped into a small group and asked everyone if they were also there for the conference, although I already knew the answer from the confidence, diversity, professionalism, and anticipation in the space. We exchanged names, schools, hometowns, majors, and projects as we made our way through the Boston metro system. When we arrived at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, there were about 200 critical-thinking, change-making, and initiative-taking young people in one room, each of them chosen as representatives from their universities. I was determined to learn as much as I could from them.
We were introduced to the president of Campus Compact and to each other. Initially, this was overwhelming, but as the program continued, I felt like the people around me could easily be my classmates. We bonded over our courses of study and our interests in social issues. One Newman Civic Fellow I met told me about her research in algal blooms, and I shared my research in biophysics. One fellow shared his devotion to building schools and promoting literacy in his home country of Nepal; I listened and asked questions to see if I could learn something to improve my project promoting oral health in Albania. I was refreshed by the diversity of backgrounds, identities, majors, and social justice areas represented in the group.
Important conversations about how to affect change began with a panel of public problems solvers in Boston. The most inspiring speaker for me was Adam John Foss, the founder and president of Prosecutor Impact—an organization promoting better outcomes for those affected by the US criminal justice system and institutionalized racism. Adam highlighted the single most important theme of the conference: individuals are affected in every dimension of life based on how aspects of their identity—like race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability—give them more or less power. The purpose of social justice work and civic engagement is to recognize and fight against these power imbalances. I am interested in addressing such injustices in the health field, but Adam’s message is also relevant to issues regarding the environment, education, gender, and every other issue area.
To close the first day, we shared our projects in conversations over dinner. I was inspired by peers working for gender equality, access to health and education across the world and against racism and other oppressive forces. One fellow was working on making feminine products more freely available at her school and advocating for the rights of vulnerable elderly people, another student was fighting for food security in affected communities, and yet another shared his efforts to make his school a more sustainable institution.
Day 2 of the conference was just as packed and enriching. We were all sworn in as senators representing different states and political parties at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. Some students—including me—were randomly assigned a political party and set of values which did not represent their real views. By putting us in the shoes of someone with different beliefs, this exercise helped build empathy and understanding. Together, we passed a responsible law about food and farming and saw how difficult but rewarding it can be to work together as Democrats and Republicans from across the United States.
After years of watching TED talks online and being inspired by them, the conference also gave me an opportunity to be an enchanted audience member in a TEDx event. I sat next to fellow peers and listened to talented speakers share their insights about self-growth, political empathy, and ideas on privilege and race. The President of Campus Compact, Dr. Andrew Seligsohn, spoke eloquently and personally about the importance of being politically empathetic and the role of civic engagement at this historical point in time.
For me, this conference was an invaluable experience. I made connections (emotional, intellectual, professional) with students from across the country who share similar goals. I felt honored to be grouped with such smart scholars and community activists. On top of schoolwork, the students in attendance make time to encourage positive change in the world. Their stories affirmed for me that one doesn’t need to wait and earn a special university degree in order to show how deeply one cares about their community. The passion and care for the aforementioned issues was palpable in each session throughout the program.
Even though spending two days on little sleep with people who challenged me to think critically and act compassionately was exhausting, I returned home recharged. I will use the connections and lessons I gained from the conference to promote social justice by working on issues around oral health, and women and children’s health. The conference instilled in me what it means to take responsible and equitable action in a community. While we all took separate paths out of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, the connections I made there have put me in a better place to be civically engaged in an educated and evolving way. For this, I am genuinely grateful.