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A New Generation of Student Voices

Today’s high school students don’t hesitate to call out racism, injustice, and inequity. Perhaps what distinguishes this generation from others is their commitment to move beyond rhetoric to concrete action and lasting change. In a roundtable discussion moderated by The Packer Magazine, a dozen Packer juniors and seniors share what inspired them to become leading voices in our community.

Karin Storm Wood, Director of Communications: When you reflect back, was there a particular moment when you found confidence in your voice?

Sadie ’22: Before freshman year, I was a pretty quiet person. I was afraid to raise my hand in the classroom. In Ninth Grade, I took the risk of performing at Poetry Chapel [an annual tradition in the Middle and Upper School]. The community responded with huge applause. That gave me a lot of confidence in myself and in my voice. I started raising my hand more often, which led to me taking leadership roles in the community.

Taspia ’22: I also presented at Poetry Chapel that year. I read a poem about feeling alone with my identity sometimes. People assume I’m Indian: no one really knows what a Bangladeshi is. After that, I felt connected to the community in a way that I hadn’t before. Also, going to a lot of diversity events as a freshman helped me become someone who can stand up for what they believe in.

Lucy ’22: Finding your voice doesn’t necessarily have to be in front of a crowd. I found what I wanted to share with the world with Mrs. [Kate] Meyer in Middle School. She encouraged students to read current events, keep up with the news, and have class discussions about politics and government.

She took the time to talk about what I’d been reading, what my thoughts were, and why. She pushed me to think more deeply and to solidify why I thought certain things or why I disagreed with certain points of view. That was the first time a teacher had taken me under their wing and nurtured my interest in government and politics.

Read more: Student Voices: The College Essay

Zoe ’23: After hating public speaking and having stage fright, in Eighth Grade I gave a speech in Chapel, about the use of images by Packer’s Communications Office and my concerns about tokenism. Ms. [Vidya] Misra helped me throughout the process of writing the speech. She made me feel very seen and heard. In terms of my own confidence, that came from small spaces, like friend groups of two or three, where we would share things specific to being a Person of Color, more specifically a Black girl, at Packer. Knowing that there are kids who don’t have the confidence to speak gives other students the confidence to speak up.

Zoe’s Eighth Grade speech launched a series of conversations between the Communications Office and students that ultimately led to the 2021 creation of Students for Diversity and Equity in Communications. SDEC is a task force that helps inform how the school represents Packer’s racial diversity in its promotional materials, such as the website and this magazine. SDEC’s mission is to promote authentic student voices and depictions of the student experience at Packer while adhering to anti-racist communications principles grounded in consent, respect, and transparency.  

Zola ’23: On the D.C. trip in Eighth Grade, I had a racist incident with someone from another school. They didn’t  want to talk to me because I was Black, and I kind of closed off. I had never experienced anything like that. Miss Semeka [Smith-Williams], Mrs. Meyer, and Ms. Misra made themselves available to me. I didn’t feel forced to do or say anything: my comfort was really taken into consideration. Later, they suggested that I share my experience with my grade. It took their support for me to be able to stand up and say, “This is what happened to me. Hopefully this will make you think more about your actions and your words and how they affect other people, specifically People of Color.”

Also, my musical background means I’m in a lot of performances. You have to just be on that stage and own it. That’s how I go through other parts of my life: even if I’m nervous, I don’t let people see it.

Read more: Meet the People Behind the Words

Is there a bridge between confidence outside the classroom and confidence in the classroom?

Charlie ’23: Yes. My freshman year, I was able to attend Harvard Model Congress in Boston. It was an amazing experience, standing in for a senator on the Judiciary Committee, voicing their point of view. I was also able to  give closing remarks that combined my humor with my passion for politics. Creating a really dynamic moment  that was appreciated by my peers meant a lot to me.

Maryem ’22: This year, being one of the captains of the girls varsity soccer team, I had to use my voice in ways that I hadn’t before. Younger students looked up to me for guidance and leadership. That experience built confidence that wasn’t limited to the soccer field; it extended to other parts of my life as well.

Kat ’23: I completely agree, and it goes the other way, too. In Ninth Grade Pre-Calculus, I was struggling during a self-directed math exploration we had to present to our classmates. I was extremely nervous, but I did my presentation, and people seemed to like it! The connections that I made with my classmates because of that experience allowed me to join the Women’s STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] Club. It made me feel a lot more confident and got me out of a downward spiral. That moment stands out as a vivid example of me becoming more confident to speak.

Sam ’22: I joined the varsity swim team in Middle School, as a very nervous Seventh Grader. All the upperclassmen were very welcoming. I realized that the only thing that was preventing me from being a part of the community was myself. That was because of their impact — their kindness and their including me.

Read more: Student Research: Ella ’23 on Cosmology

What role have your teachers played in developing your voices?

Talia ’22: Someone who was influential for me was Dr. [Sarah] Strauss. In her AT Archives course, I kept picking out these really weird, niche topics. I was afraid of being judged, but she fully embraced them. That helped me to develop my voice as a scholar, to accept that I’m interested in niche stuff, and to just go with it!

Charlie: In Middle School, I experienced many struggles related to confidence. My English teacher, Mr. [Todd] Johnson, had many meaningful discussions with me. He really cared, and it made an enormous difference — to where I’m now able to speak in class with confidence. I count myself lucky to have had him by my side and in my life. Zoe: Todd Johnson was a huge influence for me, too. He was the first teacher who made me feel like I was being listened to when I expressed my concerns about the curriculum and social community at Packer. I was even able to critique his classes, and he just listened. That feeling of being listened to — and the belief that action would actually be taken in response — definitely boosted my confidence.

Maryem: A moment that was important to me was when we were doing a project on social movements in Tenth Grade U.S. History. Ms. [Sandra] Fahy had encouraged me to look into injustices happening in Palestine. That topic is pretty controversial in the Packer community. Ms. Fahy built my confidence in sharing my opinions, even if they’re shut down or disagreed with. She gave me the assurance to talk about something I was scared to talk about before.

Taspia: For me, Semeka has been a great support. One day during my sophomore year, there was a really big Continuing the Conversation [student-led teach-in] with more than 50 people in the room. At one point, no one was speaking. Semeka was like, “Taspia, do you have anything to say?” At the time I was kind of upset, like, Why would she do that? But now, I’m grateful for all the times she’s pushed me out of my comfort zone.

Lucy: In Tenth Grade, I wanted to go to a conference on voting rights in Albany, but my parents couldn’t take me. I kid you not, Miss Semeka was like, “All right. We’re going to make this happen. Let’s go.” She took me on the train. It was so nice!

Valentina ’23: I want to shout out Dio Hernandez, the faculty advisor to Sabores Latinos [the Upper School’s Latinx affinity space]. I wasn’t allowed to take Spanish when I entered Packer because I’m a fluent heritage speaker. But I wanted to perfect my grammar and expand my vocabulary. Along with other students, we’re creating a course for heritage and native speakers.

Does having a strong voice define your generation?

Taspia: I don’t think it’s unique to our generation. There have been countless Packer students who did similar work but got little recognition for it. For instance, students have been trying to change the curriculum for a long time, way before the Change Committee was formed.

Students created the Change Committee in 2020 to advocate for more diverse representations of race, ethnicity, and culture across Packer’s curriculum. Since its founding, the Change Committee has engaged in dialogue with several academic departments to express its desire for Packer students of all identities to see themselves reflected in their studies. In partnership with Upper School leadership, the Committee also launched a system for students to provide feedback directly to their teachers, with an option for anonymity. (Read a student opinion piece from The Prism that questions this practice.)

The change in Packer’s administration has been a big part of that. For example, Maryem and I fought for a day off on Eid, a Muslim holiday. When I was in Middle School, my sister [Tasnia ’17] fought for the same thing and was shot down. Then when Dr. Weyburn came in, it happened.

I think we need to do a better job of recognizing the work of past students. It rubs me the wrong way when current students are like, “We should have been talking about this.” There have been kids of color who were talking about this; it’s just that no one cared to listen.

Lucy: I totally agree. In a broader context, outside of the Packer community, there’s the notion of “This is the generation of activism. This is the generation of change.” I think it’s meant in a positive way, but it feels like it writes off all of the work we’re doing, as if our generation is just meant to do activism, that it just happens naturally for us.

A lot of the work people are doing is a result of what Taspia said: not being listened to for so long, and people ignoring problems like climate change and environmental injustice. This generation is realizing that we don’t have the luxury to just wait it out. If change is going to happen, it’s going to be with us.

Read more: Student Activism: The Land Acknowledgement Committee

Zoe: I’ve been at Packer since Kindergarten, and the changes being made now have been asked for every single year that I’ve been here. Now, there’s a lot more pressure on the school to actually make the changes — instead of saying, “we hear you” while nothing happens. Students are now allowed to critique the institutions that they participate in. Also, there’s a threat to Packer’s image because of the way people are demanding accountability.

Our generation has been provided the space to be listened to and take action. There’s always been a huge voice, but now we’re being taken a lot more seriously.

With encouragement from their science teacher Sharon Melady, the First Grade recently sent emails to President Biden to share their concerns about the environment.

Read more: Where Student Voice Begins

Kat: I completely agree, and I think the online environment of the pandemic contributed to that. The Zoom chats would sometimes be boiling with complaints. Our grade set up virtual meetings every couple of weeks to talk about issues at school. That made our concerns a lot more public.

Rohan: It’s amazing how, two years ago, the administration and the students were almost feuding. Now we’re collaborating more. And it goes deeper than collaboration. It’s about creating plans to enact change. We’re seeing students raise issues and then follow up and be actively involved. This is from the majority of Packer students, not just student leaders.

Sadie: After an incident related to students a few years ago, the administration really listened to our concerns about consent training. That prompted the creation of the student-led Boundaries and Sexual Empowerment Committee. The administration really cared about what the students had to say. We were able to make changes to the student handbook pretty quickly.

Rohan: Recently, a lot of students have asked to know their grades in real time, throughout the semester. The Student Council brought the topic up and provided data to the administration. Now we’re working on this issue with a task force that the administration created. Hopefully we can enact this change next year.

Read more: Student Voices: Opinions from The Prism

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your Ninth Grade self?

Cole ’22: The connections you can make in clubs and other organizations really help you find your voice and help you make an impact. Student activities are a key way Packer helps you figure out how to share your thoughts and what you know. If I were to do something different going into Ninth Grade, I would’ve gotten more involved in these things earlier, so I’d have had more time to cultivate my interests.

Kat: As a new Ninth Grader I was just so intimidated by this new environment. I just wanted to be this little speck of dust in the corner that no one would bother. Maybe that was not the right mindset to have! So my advice would be to go to as many different club meetings as you possibly can. They’ve been a really positive force in my life that I wish I’d taken better advantage of.

Sadie: It’s one thing to join something, but it’s another to actually be someone in that group. I joined a lot of clubs in Ninth Grade, but I was always just a fly on the wall. I was scared I’d do one thing wrong and be canceled or be embarrassed for the rest of high school!

My advice would be: Don’t be afraid of the Packer community. It’s a really supportive, close, tight-knit place that will help you grow. Sure, there’ll be times when you’ll embarrass yourself, but you learn to move on. It’s never as big a deal as you think.

This conversation was edited for clarity and condensed.

Read more: Becoming Braver: Alumni Voices

Read more from our feature

A New Generation of Student Voices

Meet the People Behind the Words: Portraits by Lucia ’23 and Madison ’23

Student Research: Ella ’23 on Cosmology

Student Activism: The Land Acknowledgement Committee

Student Voices: Opinions from The Prism

Where Student Voice Begins

Becoming Braver: Alumni Voices