Coming of Age Amidst Protest

I’m the daughter of two Tiananmen Square protestors and am currently wrapping up my first semester at NYU, often considered one of the most liberal universities in the most liberal city of the most liberal country. Yet on my way to class this morning my mother called me to tixing – to “remind” me to stay away from the protests for Mike Brown and Eric Garner. I’ve had more phone calls from my family throughout the past couple of weeks than I’ve had during four years of boarding school, and all of them have been on the same topic.

Yesterday, I turned eighteen. Isn’t it funny that in America, at eighteen — the age of adulthood — most of the rights you gain have to do with civic responsibility (voting, military conscription)? Shouldn’t that say something about this country? Maybe that adults are expected to actively participate in the governance of the state. Maybe citizenship is a privilege but also a duty. Thoughts like these insistently coursed through my consciousness as I walked to class. That rushing stream was interrupted only by my TA saying, “I want to start by having a moment of silence for Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and all other victims of either police brutality or discrimination.”

It occurred to me then why we protest and why the majority of protestors are college students, even though 18-25 year olds formed the least represented age bracket in the recent midterm elections’ voter turnout.

For most, protest is not a political statement; it’s a humanistic one. It’s about solidarity. Our moment of silence slipped by minute after minute as we mourned. Previously, we had nothing connecting us together as a class but as we lowered our heads together, I could feel that we were bonded in a more profound, inexplicable manner.

But why college students? Why is it that when my parents were 20, they fought for their country, but not even three decades later they will not allow me to fight for mine? Perhaps it’s because we college students are in a strange time in our lives. We have been clinging to the cliffs of adolescence, grazing the surface of adulthood. We’ve reached the limits of childhood and yet, we are not quite ready to take the plunge. Occupying such a volatile gray space, generation after generation of college students will rise up to give voice to the voiceless because we have not forgotten what it is to feel impotent, because we have not been fully buried by adult responsibilities, because we understand that these are not solely race or political issues, but wholly human issues.

Protests are not signs of defeat but symptoms of hope. Today every NYU student received in his or her email a letter from NYU President John Sexton. It opens with, “The quest for justice is what drew many of us to this scholarly community – to study the law, so we might protect people’s rights; to study the healing arts, so we may alleviate suffering; to study economics, so prosperity might be widely shared; to study journalism and history, so our society would be informed and could confront hard truths about itself. The list goes on and on.” In closing, he states: “Our University’s motto is Perstare et Praestare: to persevere and excel. I can think of no finer or more necessary qualities for the pursuit of justice.” While this last bit is, of course, NYU-specific, the truth resounds with all of us. We will persevere and we will excel in faith that justice for humanity will be had.

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Maria Shao is a freshman at New York University.