By Rebecca Diers – SUNY Cortland

For the past several months, Americans have faced numerous challenges in regards to politics and how American citizens feel the country should be run. These recent events have been incited by both Republicans and Democrats in the form of protests and riots in an attempt for both parties to try and get their voices and opinions heard by the rest of the country. College students offer a unique view about these recent events and the challenges they bring, as all these events dictate the shape of the world as they prepare to graduate and step foot into it. They also offer a unique message: a message of hope for the future.

It seemed to be a common agreement among college students who I interviewed that America currently seems very divided and lacking harmony. When asked her opinion on how America is currently functioning, Kayla, an Anthropology and International Studies student said, “I don’t think America is functioning well at all. Everyone is separated and we all can’t seem to agree on anything.”

Lucy, a fellow Professional Writing peer of mine, felt the same way, and elaborated even further on the idea when she said, “I think America is currently functioning in a very disjointed way. It feels very divided and unsafe. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground anymore. I think that America needs to be more about the country rather than different parties and different opinions. Politics isn’t just about politics anymore; it is now about human rights. The violence that is happening is dangerous and I never thought I would see something like that. America seems to be struggling to be united right now.”

Even though these students do not feel as though America is functioning well, students are hopeful that things will turn around for the better. This feeling was best captured by Speech Pathology major, Katarina, who said, “I think America is currently in a really dark time, I hope with the vaccines and the new administration things will be better. I’m hopeful about the future and how the country will be functioning. I think marginalized groups of people (minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, disabled individuals, women, etc.) are dismissed so quickly… I think what can be done better moving forward is if the president takes into account the lives of all citizens in this country when making decisions.”

After hearing that response, I felt as though it was important to see what other actions students felt as though the new President, Joe Biden, should take during his time in office, especially in regards to all of the current events. One matter that was repeatedly brought up by students was the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Lucy explained, “BLM is still a pressing issue and I think it is vital that he listens to minorities and takes actions to increase equality.

Alicia, a Film Studies and Production major with minors in Creative Writing and Integrated Media, agreed with this statement, and went on to say, “I have encountered a great imbalance of grievances that I rarely see addressed. On these issues, BIPOC (Black identifying people of color) need to be listened to and given a platform so that non BIPOC, like myself, can hear about personal experiences and come to realize the disparity in treatment and response that these individuals face, and also that that we can recognize the humanity within one another and come to treat each other based on that.”

Students also feel as though the pandemic is something Biden needs to focus on. Lucy said, “I think that Biden must focus on the vaccine for Covid and distributing it. I also think he needs to start shutting places down again until the virus is under control… The stimulus check is another important task for the president as many people are struggling financially during Covid.”

In agreement, Katarina said, “The new president should look into more covid relief and look outward for help as well. Trump cuts us off from the rest of the world and that doesn’t work quite so well when we are desperate for more medical personnel in a pandemic… He should also look towards making the country less dependent on fossil fuels and try to limit our carbon emissions. Everything that he said he would do during his campaign he should do. I hope to see him keep his word.”

Allan, an Archaeology major, also felt as though the pandemic was something Biden should focus on. He said, “Mask mandates need to be instated and enforced federally. Personal freedoms of comfort can be thrown out the window when we are talking about the safety of our country and its citizens.”

After hearing Allan’s response, I felt it would also be important to see how students feel as though Americans can do better during these turbulent times, as the problem does not always stem from people in leadership positions. One of the main things these students felt Americans should do is educate themselves. In fact, Kayla stated, “If we educated Americans with the truth, maybe our country would be different.”

Katarina said, “Stay informed as you can without sacrificing your mental health. People need to be more informed on issues but to a certain point. Politics can get very sad and overwhelming and triggering. Learn as much as you can without destroying your hope.”

Part of the way Americans can educate themselves is by having conversations with one another, and hearing different peoples’ viewpoints and perspectives. As an Anthropology major, I witness conversations every day held by other Anthropology students and those of related majors about how they feel as though America needs to make changes to its policies and priorities. For these students, it’s not about choosing a side—Republican or Democrat— and deciding who is right and who is wrong. It’s about having conversations and respecting one another’s’ opinions in the search for how we all as Americans can do better. This was best explained by Katarina, who said, “If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that we all (including the leaders of this country) need to listen to one another more and try to understand other perspectives.

Many students just want to feel as though their voices are being heard, when the world is constantly telling them to be quiet. In fact, many students I have interacted with have mentioned how family members and other adults tell them college is brainwashing them, when in reality they are receiving an education and actually learning about the world in an environment that isn’t dictated by the media. Alicia said, “I believe we as a generation receive news and information in a different way from older generations. There is very little overlap in the way in which we view (or even what we are viewing) and how we interpret those events. However, that isn’t to say that this generation is united in its viewpoints as each individual holds their own unique opinions.”

From experience, I found that people tend to avoid conversations with people when they know they have differing viewpoints. With this in mind, I asked these students how conversations can be held respectfully with those of differing viewpoints and opinions, and how they can use this to educate themselves.

Allan offered his personal experience when I asked him that question: “This is an issue I have struggled with myself. My father holds very differing viewpoints than I, and whenever I attempt to discuss with him he shuts me down, claiming I’m too young and that I don’t know enough about the world. I think both sides of any discussion need to be respectful and understanding of each other. Make sure any biases are laid out to bare before the discussion, lest they cause tension. Respect that though their opinions may differ, they still came to them of their own volition and therefore they should be treated with the respect of any opinion, no matter how much you disagree. Do not go into a conversation with the intent of changing their mind. Only they themselves can do that. All you can do is offer them information which may make them change their position. Always fact check yourself, do not peddle false information, or your credibility may be shot permanently.”

Lucy also had a lot to say on this topic: “Conversations can be held respectfully between those of differing viewpoints by being open to hearing the other side and acknowledging their opinion. You can learn a lot from listening to others and I think that it is important to sometimes agree to disagree. It can be hard, especially when talking about things like race and people are still in denial of the reality of racism in this country, but it is important to teach others and expose them to new information.

Alicia tied this concept to her experience at college, which I felt was important to think about. She explained, “For me, college has been a place to ask questions, to look at the foundation beneath my feet and question its existence. This is something I think everyone can benefit from; critical thinking allows us to stop absorbing other people’s opinions but instead form our own.

Katarina went on to say, “People can still have different viewpoints and still converse respectfully with one another. Having a difference of opinion on policy is never something that should come between people.”

All of these students offered enlightening viewpoints on America’s current state, and their underlying feelings of hope for the future. I think these messages are something anyone can learn from, as the future continues to be written.

Rebecca Diers is interning with Pressenza as a part of her Professional Writing major at SUNY Cortland. Her other major in Anthropology fuels her passion for understanding different cultures and making connections with people. She uses writing as a way to make sense of the world, and to inspire a sense of humanity in her audience.