When documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson came to campus last month for an early screening of his latest work, Freedom Riders, he also talked about the upcoming Student Freedom Ride that will be taking place in May of this year.
Sponsored by PBS’s American Experience and in conjunction with Nelson’s film, a busload of college students — as well as some of the original Riders and Nelson himself — will travel over the span of 10 days from Washington, D.C., down to New Orleans, tracing the original path of the Riders in 1961 who braved violent assault, jailing and even death while working to break down segregation in the Deep South.
Out of the more than 1,000 applicants, only 40 were chosen. One of these students is College first-year Sarah Cheshire.
“The selection process was rigorous,” said Lauren Prestileo, Project Manager for the 2011 Student Freedom Ride. “We looked for students who demonstrated a strong commitment to civic engagement on their campuses and in their communities. We looked for people who have a strong desire to learn, not just from the original Riders, but from fellow students, families and communities. And we looked for students who demonstrated critical thinking about the current state of civic engagement and how it has changed since 1961.”
In her application video, Cheshire remarked that “we have inherited a world where a lot of things are broken, and the onus of change is on us. I truly believe that through constructive dialogue, civic and social engagements and a greater awareness of the world we live in we can all help to make a difference.”
Cheshire, a native of Durham, N.C., first learned about the original Freedom Rides while studying the Civil Rights Movement in her high school history class. “My knowledge of the civil rights movement had always been centered around its important leaders, such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King,” said Cheshire. “I don’t think I ever really realized the extent to which the success of the movement was predicated upon the courage and collective participation of ‘ordinary’ people.”
When Cheshire saw the 2011 Student Freedom Rides advertised, she knew right away that she wanted to “get on the bus,” the term American Experience uses to refer to this particular bit of activism. “I think that growing up in the South in a family that self- identifies as being part of a ‘Southern’ cultural identity has caused me to develop a particularly strong consciousness about issues specific to the region.”
Cheshire’s application stood out among hundreds of others because it demonstrated “a very honest and sincere desire to explore race relations in America, and to better understand the rich diversity in this nation,” said Prestileo. “Her work as a tutor and as a volunteer at the Rape Crisis Hotline demonstrated a commitment to her campus and her community. Overall, she was a very impressive and inspiring applicant, as were the other 39 who will be joining her.”
While on the road, the Riders will not be watching the scenery go by. While retracing the original route, they will stop at cities of importance during the Civil Rights Movement and during the original Freedom Rides. The Riders will also “be having lots of discussions about civic and social engagement and our generation’s relationship to the civil rights movement,” said Cheshire.
Although she is looking forward to taking part in such dialogues, Cheshire thinks “that a lot of the experience for me will be about listening. So many of the people that we will be interacting with have such interesting life experiences and so many of the places that we will be going to are rooted in such rich histories. So I really want to focus on listening to the stories that these things hold and soaking it all in.”
The 2011 Student Freedom Ride will be starting off in D.C. on May 6 and continuing through May 16, the same night that Nelson’s documentary will premiere on PBS.