PRINCETON, N.J.—I could hear my heart pounding as we approached the cash register. Surrounded by three teenagers and my fellow counselor, Walter, I imagined that this was how a bank robber must feel in the moments before he raises a gun and demands all the money.
I was in charge of these students; if something went wrong, it was up to Walter and me to back them up. The calm I'd felt while going over this scenario on the train dissipated in an instant, and I feigned confidence as the smallest of our students approached the man at the register with self-assurance.
"Are you the manager?” she asked. “We're from the Princeton Summer Journal and we've found some expired products in your store.”
For ten days, I lived and worked with 21 of the best high school journalists from around the country at the Princeton University Summer Journalism Program. These students—many of them people of color, most of them women, and all of them low-income—were taking part in an intensive journalism program designed to get them excited about journalism as a college activity, and maybe even as a career.
They learned that journalists replace sleep with caffeine and late-night conversations that become friendships and devolve, sometimes, into dancing. But the real challenge, I think, was broadening their perspectives: as one of our directors said, journalism is a way of viewing the world.
So for ten days, we encouraged the students to question authority and accepted narratives. We encouraged them to approach problems at their schools without fear and to take on the issues that matter to their student bodies. Most importantly, we treated them like adults. On the last night of the program, several of our students and counselors recited poems of intense honesty and maturity. They learned to be skeptical, to question, and to be truthful, with the intent of improving the world.
Some of these students, I know, won’t grow up to be journalists. But standing there, in a Prospect Park Rite Aid with a basket full of expired baby food, I knew they had internalized the skills requisite to change their communities. And, for the tenth time in as many days, I was inspired by the courage and maturity of my teenage students.
Katie R. Zavadski ’13, a news writer, is a Comparative Study of Religion concentrator in Lowell House.