Neha Madhira shares her experience on becoming a student journalist
No matter where my family lives, our house is decorated to remind us of our Indian heritage. As soon as I walk in, plants line both sides of the entryway and my mother’s hand-painted rangoli covers the floor.
My parents are from southern India and we are the only ones out of our family living in the United States, so although I was raised in a different environment, my parents taught me Telugu and maintained a close group of Indian Americans to celebrate auspicious events.
That “traditional boundary” applied to other aspects of my life but my parents also acknowledged things I had living in the United States, like participating in extracurriculars. However, that was narrowed when I started high school and had to choose a career endorsement. I was told what I pursued had to make me successful. My parents believed the only options were medicine or engineering. I chose medicine and assumed my passion for it was related to my performance in those classes. I thought that until I walked into Journalism I.
The charisma my teacher, Ms. Oglesbee, had for writing drew me in and I soon joined the UIL Academic Journalism team and our school’s online newspaper. This was the first time I realized I was passionate about something, but it had nothing to do with my grades. The more my parents noticed I was spending my time writing, the more they told me it was becoming a distraction.
When I was a junior and Assistant Editor of our school newspaper, our principal prior reviewed, prior restrained, censored stories, banned editorials, and fired Ms. Oglesbee. Saying I felt belittled was an understatement. I reached out to the Student Press Law Center for help and after my story was censored, the principal called my father and told him he was angry at me for writing negative stories. He didn’t call my mother or both my parents, only my father. It was as if he thought my father would be the “traditional Indian dad” and shut me down. He was wrong. My father used the meeting to fight for me. Although, our staff’s situation worsened and after unsuccessful meetings with our principal to change his strict policy, our only option was to speak out if we wanted real change.
I told my father I wanted to speak out and, as any parent would be, he was frightened. After he, Ms. Oglesbee, and I talked back and forth about the importance of the issue, he weighed the risks as well as my ability to succeed. Even though he believed all of this would derail my path to success in the medical field, he let me go. He realized I found something I was truly devoted to.
I spoke out in May of 2018 and our story escalated to the national level. We received an outpour of support from students as well as advisers and over 20 media publications covered our story, including the New York Times.
Throughout the summer, our administrators stayed deafeningly silent but our principal overturned his strict policy in the end. Although, I am not done yet. We were the first recipients of the Women’s Media Center Young Journalist awards, we gave a TED Talk about censorship, we spoke at the 50th anniversary of the Tinker vs. Des Moines case in Iowa, and we are still fighting to pass New Voices laws everywhere. I know our story doesn’t end here.
I could have stayed silent or stood up for what I believed in and after choosing the latter, my parents and I both realized the “success model” I have been raised to follow my whole life had changed. Student journalism was never a part of it, yet the way I stood up and the environment in which my parents taught me to keep chasing success, came together to make me who I am today.