“Life is not a spectator sport…If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.”
These are the often-quoted words of barrier-breaking baseball legend and civil rights advocate Jackie Robinson. Luckily, here at Haverford, there is never a shortage of students who seek to be involved, whether it’s in the classroom, on the athletic field, within a club, or in a community service activity. And nowhere is that better reflected than in the campus opinions section of The Index.
Opinion pieces are not personal essays or news reports, nor are they reviews or promotions. They are arguments. According to The Washington Post, an opinion piece should deepen an understanding of a topic and help raise ideas or perspectives that might not be heard otherwise. Opinion pieces are one way a community can honor diversity: anyone in the community can share an opinion.
Month after month, students do just that: offer opinions and thoughts on issues they feel strongly about. But what happens to those opinions? Is writing an opinion piece for the paper an exercise in futility, or do the faculty and administration read and consider them? Do student opinion pieces ever incite change in school policy?
Conversations with various school administrators and faculty members confirm that the campus opinion section is a widely consumed part of the school newspaper.
Student opinions matter.
According to Head of School Mr. Tyler Casertano, there is a weekly leadership team meeting attended by all three division heads, Assistant Head of School Mr. Thorburn, Director of DEI Ms. Rhonda Brown, Director of Admissions Mr. Donta Evans, as well as leaders from communications, development, and athletics. During this meeting, the administration will consider and think about what students are sharing. “Change begins as conversation […] and student opinion pieces are data points in the conversation” Mr. Casertano said.
We don’t want students to ever have to choose between culture and the rigors of being a student at Haverford.Ms. rhonda brown
Director of Admissions Donta Evans concurs, sharing that he does not view student opinions as complaints, but rather as “data points and opportunities to improve.”
An example of how student opinion can impact school policy is the recently formalized Policy on Academic Accommodations for Reasons of Faith and Conscience. The policy is intended to provide students with flexibility to celebrate days of faith or social conscience that are not already on the school calendar. The policy’s existence is due, in part, to an opinion piece written by Sixth Former Dylan Kao, published in The Index last April.
Kao wrote an essay for an English class about Lunar New Year and its significance and importance to his family and culture. He shared the essay with the Pan Asian Alliance, which decided it wanted to convince the school to make Lunar New Year a formal school holiday. Kao edited his essay into an opinion piece and published it in the paper. He and other members of the Pan Asian Alliance then met with school leadership.
Ms. Brown says that while there was already an informal policy in place, Kao’s opinion piece and advocacy helped bring the issue to the forefront. “We don’t want students to ever have to choose between culture and the rigors of being a student at Haverford,” Ms. Brown said.
After meeting with Kao and other members of the Pan Asian Alliance, Ms. Brown began working with the leadership team to develop a more comprehensive policy. While the school did not ultimately make Lunar New Year a formal day off, it does now work with individual students to honor requests to reschedule coursework and/or to be absent from classes for student-identified days of faith or conscience.
“As we get more diverse as a community, there will be more and more requests. We didn’t want to be in the position of saying yes to some holidays and no to others,” Ms. Brown said.
According to Kao, while not exactly what he was advocating for, it felt like a good first step forward, a good compromise.
The compromise underscores an important point about opinion pieces. They are not demand letters. There is a reason they are formally written, edited and published instead of being created by cutting words from old magazines, gluing them onto paper and slipping the paper under Mr. Casertano’s office door. There is value in being able to formulate an idea, write about it in an articulate and compelling way and then stand by it.
Mr. Casertano said that he hopes students know how much Reflections and, by extension, op-ed pieces mean to him. He wants there to be discussion and even disagreement, but in a way that is conversational, as “the conversations help move disagreement to agreement and then creates a path forward.”
“The school, in its long-range planning, has identified parking as an area of our campus that needs enhancement.”Mr. Tyler casertano
Class of 2022 Ryan Rodack’s piece about parking challenges is a perfect example. Rodack’s piece did not result in the miraculous appearance of fifty more parking spots. But it did offer the administration more context and perspective as they work on long term student parking solutions.
“The school, in its long-range planning, has identified parking as an area of our campus that needs enhancement,” Mr. Casertano said.
Of course, not all opinion pieces result in change. Sixth former Joey Kauffman’s September 2022 piece advocating for limits on the amount of summer work for classes failed to sway English Department Chair Mr. Thomas Stambaugh to make any changes to summer reading requirements. “[Students choose] to take the Honors English class and presumably understand the course requirements will have an increased demand on their time.”
According to Kao, writing his opinion piece and publishing it in The Index was worthwhile, “It is a way to get your message to the entire school, administration, and faculty.”
Regardless of how an op-ed piece is received, taking the time to share a perspective, to advocate for a change or argue for an idea is one way to get out of the grandstand and engage with the life of the school. But, then again, that may just be a matter of opinion.