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Gwen Klein

September 2, 2016
Humanities and Arts Off-Campus Experience Essay
“Gwen, please take a seat. We need to talk.”
No matter who you are or where you’re from, you know that when parents utter
these words, you know you’re in for a long, uncomfortable conversation.
Whether it’s my mom lecturing me about the importance of deodorant and
tampons, or my dad reiterating car safety for the thousandth time, my parents have hit
every single traditional parent talk over the years.
Or at least I thought I so.
It wasn’t until this past year, when a bunch of my African-American friends
compared stories on how their parents coached them to act if approached by police, that I
realized I hadn’t gotten every “talk” after all. It struck me as extremely unfair that many
kids my age had to worry about their safety when getting pulled over and I didn’t, just
because of the difference in our skin tones.
In fact, it wasn’t until last year when I joined the Minority Scholars Program
(MSP), a student-led countywide club established to ensure minority students’ success,
that I had ever talked about issues regarding race. Before this, you might say I was sort of
oblivious to the struggles that minority students face.
Not anymore though.
While I am part Hispanic and part Jewish, I am white. Over the years, in my
household we have had plenty of conversations about inequality and prejudice, but not
really too many honest conversations about skin color or race. It never really came up, I
guess. And ever since preschool, I have attended schools where the vast majority of the

population has been made-up of privileged white and Asian students. All throughout
elementary and middle school, there was not one mention of skin color, at least not in my
friend’s circles, probably because it was an awkward conversation to have. So of course,
when I got to high school and a friend told me about MSP, I was intrigued. During the
first meeting when students shared their stories, my innocent curiosity about the topic of
racism transformed into a great frustration. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t paid much
attention to it in the past.
An African-American friend of mine spoke up about how he puts his driver’s
license in his cup holder so that if police were to pull him over the officer wouldn’t
mistake the act of reaching for a license for the act of reaching for a gun. I realized that
police brutality isn’t just a far-away concept that I hear about on the news; it exists in our
community too.
One student talked about how she was the only Hispanic student in every single
one of her honors and AP classes. I was shocked to see so many students shake their
heads in agreement that the achievement gap is just as prominent at Wootton, one of the
best schools in the entire nation, as it is anywhere else.
Another discussed how a teacher had called her out of class just to tell her that she
was doing a great job because the teacher obviously wasn’t expecting a Black student to
do so well in her class. I couldn’t believe that Wootton teachers, some of the very best,
even struggled with cultural competency.
The Minority Scholars Program met on a weekly basis and I became more and
more invested in the fight for minority students’ success. I started to feel a personal
responsibility to change the system, to fight institutionalized racism.

I became a mentor for middle school minority students in an effort to better
prepare them for high school, an attempt to close the achievement gap at Wootton.
I wrote articles for the newspaper about voting laws that limit minority
participation, and another about the criticism that Beyoncé faced after taking a public
stance against police brutality.
As a student government member, I have been leading the effort to dedicate our
annual school-wide community awareness project towards promoting cultural
proficiency, giving minority students a platform to speak about their experiences and
encouraging everyone in our community to listen and learn.
And this is where my off-campus experience comes in, and where my perspective
really started to change about a lot of things. This summer I was selected as one of 13
students from across our county of one million people to participate in the first-ever
internship with the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) involving
students in a broad effort designed to close the achievement gap. I was the only student
chosen from Wootton, thanks to the actions I took in the school community.
As a part of this unique experience, I was first invited to speak about the
importance of cultural competency in the classroom to teachers from all around the
country at the National Education Association (NEA) Convention. This was an incredible
experience, as about 100 teachers from all over came to our workshop in addition to four
members of the NEA Board, the president of the MCEA and many other noteworthy local
officials. We shared our story of selves, and talked about the affect that the Minority
Scholars Program had on us as students.

It was the first time I ever really felt like my voice could actually make a
difference. Teachers were asking how to begin installing this program in their schools,
they were asking me for tips on their teaching styles, and they confessed to me that they
were on my side in fighting towards increasing funding and focus towards closing the gap
on a national scale. They were actually listening to our stories, and I realized that even
though I might just be a student, I could in fact make change if I stood up for myself and
used my voice.
I later spoke in front of the Montgomery County School Board and the
Superintendent and pitched a plan to develop and establish community school programs
throughout the county in an effort provide supplementary services and will therefore level
the playing field for those with fewer resources.
This experience was even more valuable than the last, and my small group was
even mentioned in an article that appeared on the front page of the Metro section in the
Washington Post. Again, I was shocked that the Superintendent of about a million
students responded directly to me, and noted specifically that he supports my idea and
wants to include it in his plan to close the achievement gap. I couldn’t believe that I could
influence the entire counties’ budget and initiatives just by standing up in front of the
board and appealing to them about something that I felt passionately about.
In addition to my action plan geared towards implementing community schools in
MCPS, I also worked on a plan to give minority students more of a voice to speak about
what they feel is wrong with the school system. We felt that one White student board
member from BCC, one of the wealthiest schools in the county, failed to advocate for the
needs that so many minority and lower socioeconomic students talk about. So we

communicated with him and the MCR to create a group of students (where minority
students are encouraged to serve), one from every school who will meet with the SMOB
to ensure that their voice is heard.
I also worked on a plan that has worked towards making teachers’ cultural
competency training mandatory. I realized that at Wootton, most of our teachers really
understand how important it is to treat everyone equally, and yet at so many other schools
in MCPS, the teachers are not held to the same standards. We came up with better teacher
evaluation techniques, and worked with the equity team and the Board in order to try to
make the class, which is optional right now, mandatory.
I even got the chance to sit down with the Montgomery County Executive Ike
Legget for over an hour and listen to his inspiring story of obstacles he had to overcome
growing up. I took advantage of the opportunity, and questioned him on what actions he
has taken to work against institutionalized racism, and suggest some things that I think he
could do to fight for this movement. Just by talking to him, I got a much better idea about
what the county is doing, and how and where I can work to fill in the gaps.
As one of my favorite teachers always said, “In order to make change, you must
force the uncomfortable conversations.” Just like my parents, I have ultimately come to
appreciate the importance of such conversations.
I used to make excuses that I was too young to speak up, that no one would listen
to me because I am simply a student. But the moment that I gave it a try, I realized I was
wrong. People did listen. By finding my voice I have created change.