Since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, 320 people have been shot on college campuses. America’s institutions have a long history of violence and mass shootings, according to an investigation by Virginia Tech’s student newspaper. Yet, there has been little policy action to prevent future violence. In the wake of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, student-driven protests have changed public opinion and accelerated more action on gun control laws than we’ve seen in a long time.
Amplifying student voices nationally, Sarah Kenny, outgoing student body president at the University of Virginia, rallied over 80 campus leaders to sign a letter calling on lawmakers to take policy action. We spoke with Sarah about what inspired her to collaborate with fellow student leaders on this issue.
NCLC: You recently issued a letter on behalf of SGA Presidents calling for lawmakers to establish immediate and lasting reforms to end gun violence. What inspired this call to action?
Sarah Kenny: I was pleasantly surprised by the extensive images of student marches across the nation, and I wanted to make sure that we continue that conversation and translate that kind of powerful imagery into something that lawmakers could substantively work with.
We have a unique set of safety issues on college campuses. I can recall my high school required us to check out with the security guards every time we walked through the doors. We were in regulated, little blocks where our location was known at every moment of the day. That's not the experience at the university level. With the increased rate of campus visitors and ongoing controversial debates surrounds sociopolitical issues, students more susceptible to acts of violence.
NCLC: How important was it for you to bring campus leaders together to address this issue?
SK: I think our country is open the voices of young people more so at this political moment than I've ever seen in my lifetime. We have a powerful argument to present to policymakers, a message from the next generation saying "we are the next group entering your company and institutions. These are the ideas that we represent.”
We can demonstrate that it's not just a localized fear phenomenon, but that it’s an issue of extreme gravity for student leaders.
NCLC: The public debate about gun violence grew after the events in Parkland, FL, and higher ed is catching up. How have you discussed this issue with your campus?
SK: When I began to send out information about the idea of leading a walkout, I received some very positive reactions from our administration and our university’s provost. Students also responded positively to comprehensive, common sense gun reform. I did, however, receive some pushback on the issue. I was completing an opportunity to memorialize the students who we lost at Parkland with a political agenda inspired by the Parkland students themselves, but that there was a desire to see this as a separate issue. I don't believe you can separate the personal and political on this issue. If we want to stop holding memorials for students dying, that has to also translate into policy.
NCLC: For students and faculty who pushed back, how did you meet them halfway?
SK: It comes down to presenting your stance and conviction. Leadership is about making hard calls from time and remaining open to conversations and opportunities for collaboration. As long as you're friendly and open to that dialogue, people will be able to respect your decision whether they agree with it or not.
NCLC: As a student leader, you have tackled hate speech, gun violence, and racism. How has your campus community responded to your advocacy efforts?
SK: Racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacist activity and ideology have been very prevalent on our campus, and I have been pleased with the counter racist and white supremacy efforts taking place at the university. I think there has been great attention, at many levels of our university, to look at our structures that perpetuate white supremacy and enable racist-based hate. I think our student body struggled a lot with being a public university and wanted a firmer policy that prevented hate speech.
It's still a conversation that UVA is trying to navigate. We are a public institution that is being targeted as a place for provocation by some extreme ideological actors. We're trying to figure out what other institutions have figured out and how to define what this public square is.
NCLC: How do you plan to continue this work after graduation?
SK: I plan to publish a book in the next year about my experience on everything from the campus events that mirrored the dynamics of the 2016 presidential election, the death of UVA undergrad Otto Warmbier, the "unite the right" invasion, the #metoo movement, the issue of Israel and Palestine, free speech, and race and equity issues. I will also be doing transpartisan work to bridge the political divide and get individuals talking to one another.
NCLC: What is advice would you give to student leaders who want to address campus and social issues?
SK: Prepare for attack and controversy. If you're making a change, then you're going to get pushback. There's a cost that comes with rocking the boat on social issues, but I think it's much worth doing. I also advise you to build a network of students with whom you agree and disagree. Think about what an issue could look like in five years, ten years and fifty years. Set up the person who's going to follow you so that they can continue building on your work.
Photo provided courtesy of Sarah Kenny