Los Angeles high school student Maria Urquilla describes what a class trip to Washington D.C. taught her about the importance of student voice.

My trip to the U.S Department of Education in Washington, D.C. this May really opened my eyes. The experience showed me how important opportunities to speak up are for students, and why all students need a chance to share their voice.

When my teacher, Ms. Yaron, announced to my senior class that she had booked our class to speak and present as part of an art exhibition in D.C., I was surprised that we had that sort of chance. As a low-income high school student living in Los Angeles, I’m rarely given such powerful opportunities to voice my opinion, and so I thought this would be an awesome experience (especially considering I’ve never even been outside of California).

So I applied to be one of 12 students from my school who got to travel to D.C and present to the Department of Education on what it means to be a learner and the importance of student voice and art in education.

At first, I was kind of skeptical as to whether they would actually take their time to listen to what I had to say. When I arrived at the Department of Education, I was very nervous.  I wondered what kind of people I would meet and what their reactions might be. But as the rest of the students and I were greeted, we realized that these people were actually very interested in hearing us.

As we gave our presentation, the audience had a lot of questions for us in regards to improving student learning. At that point, I knew that this was my chance to improve education for students to come.

I had always thought that the education system was unjust and that the people working for it were selfish. That they had no idea what it was like to be a victim of budget cuts or what it was like to have to worry about educational and financial needs at the same time.

But soon after the presentation, I had the opportunity to meet and talk with students from the Boston organization Elevated Thought, who shared the stage with us during the presentation. In speaking with them, I quickly realized that our problems with education were not very different at all.

As we spoke, we agreed that education is slowly beginning to close its doors on students who want to pursue a career in the arts, and that opportunities for equity are also being reduced due to financial cuts.

We left the Department of Education helping the audience understand what students in our generation are thinking. And they also helped us understand that they are aware of our struggles and that they care about us genuinely—enough to meet us.

I feel very proud of myself, and all my fellow learners who had the chance to voice their opinions, because it takes a lot of courage to represent students by speaking up. I now understand that I can make a big impact on the education of future students.

Overall, I’m so grateful for this opportunity that I got to experience with my friends, and I feel inspired to educate my classmates on how they too can voice their opinions.

Read an article by teacher Linda Yaron about this project and view photos from the event.

Maria Urquilla is a 2014 graduate of the School for the Visual Arts and Humanities, a Robert F. Kennedy Community School, in Los Angeles.

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