As I wrote back in February’s blog post, the Coming of Conscience Scholarship that was created in the spirit of the journey of the main character, Judy Talton, in my novel The Fourteenth of September had attracted a record-breaking 200+ applicants. The scholarship was open to all students (undergrad and graduate) at Northern Illinois University (NIU), the real-life model for the fictional university in the novel. It was designed to encourage meaningful activism and bold personal responsibility. Applicants were asked to write an essay to describe their understanding of Coming of Conscience, to share an example of a Coming of Conscience moment of their own, if possible, and, above all, to indicate their plan for how they will use their degree to help change the world. Essays were evaluated by a faculty committee established by the NIU Foundation, who chose the final recipient.
I’m very pleased to share with you that the scholarship has been awarded to nineteen-year-old sophomore Isabel Odom-Flores, a Communication Disorders major, in the College of Health and Human Services.
A Generation Committed to Giving Others a Voice
Isabel’s essay was one of so many who told the stories of lives changed by brushes with injustice, tragedy, and violence as well as the day-to-day courage it takes to live a life of integrity. If anyone is worried about how committed the allegedly self-absorbed younger generation is to making a difference in the lives of others, these stories will disavow any concerns. Students wrote, not surprisingly, about bullying of all kinds, cheating, sexism, and drugs, but also about abuse, gun violence, difficulties with trusting the police, and overcoming restrictive cultural norms in first-generation immigrant households. In the main, applicants had faced situations that inspired them to train for careers in law, political science, and advocacy to help address what they feel strongly are injustices and issues that must be overturned. A second majority of those are going into medical school or nursing and teaching to help those who need assistance. The commitment to using the personal fear and rage of what they went through to help others is universal.
Many are unexpected: A young woman who still had to fight to convince her parents to let her go to college. Another who became a nutrition major after the death of a young, obese cousin because of the unhealthy diet of a culture. A Christian aspiring actor and singer who turned down a major role in a play because of skimpy dress, who is now a dance major dedicated to art with modesty. Each is a story of integrity trumping consequences. Some have learned the hard way.
As one student put it. “Do I regret the choice I made that hurt others and eroded their trust and confidence in me? Most definitely. Do I regret the lesson I learned and carry with me each day? Never.”
Isabel’s Coming of Conscience
Coincidentally, as Isabel and I discovered when we met recently, she and the fictional Judy Talton share a struggle to be able to afford to go to college, the life-line of a scholarship that could make all the difference in their futures, and issues of integrity that could cause them to give it up. She’s agreed to allow me to share her story in this post. Read full essay here.
In her essay, Isabel Odom-Flores recounted a painful yet instructive moment of Coming of Conscience. She always knew that college was going to be hard to pay for and was “going to take any help I could get.” As a gifted softball player, her answer came through athletics when she was offered a scholarship to play on a new team at her community college, joining other girls who were excited to play the sport they loved as well as pay for the education they sought.
It soon became obvious the promised funds were to come “later,” according to their coach, and in exchange for serious ongoing harassment. After a year of this, Isabel was faced with a dilemma, turn the coach in and give up her scholarship, putting her future and that of the other team members at risk, or, as her teammates urged, just put up with it for the vital scholarship money—a #METOO moment at the tender age of eighteen.
“I was signed to be on full scholarship for the next school year. I was promised sophomore team captain and a starting position. I had worked hard the last ten years to become a leading student-athlete in college. I knew all of that was at jeopardy if my coach were to lose his job.” But she realized that someone had to put a stop to this. “Harassment in the workplace is wrong. Harassment in schools is wrong. Harassment everywhere is wrong.”
She tried to turn the coach in twice—once as a single, complaining voice that wasn’t believed—and mustered amazing courage to try again, finally and successfully, by convincing the team to join her in a collective complaint. The coach was let go, the integrity of the softball program restored… but the team members each lost their scholarship money. Isabel had already used the money her parents had saved for her education and was struggling to apply for burdensome student loans.
At the same time, the payoff in integrity was character-forming. Isabel now knows her mind, and has found what she calls her “firm voice” and plans to use it. Her plan for her Coming of Conscience scholarship money is to ultimately obtain a master’s in speech-language pathology to help others, literally and philosophically to have a voice.
“I will advocate in my workplace for anyone who is experiencing harassment anywhere. Spreading knowledge on what qualifies as harassment and what does not. Spreading knowledge on how to file a harassment claim under the equal employment opportunity commission. Spreading knowledge will break down the barrier that separates people from staying quiet to finding their voice.”
“I have grown to have a firm voice and use it when there is an injustice. I especially feel compelled to advocate for other women. Equality and harassment in the workplace or anywhere must be taken seriously. I will never again turn a blind eye in any setting.”
I’m particularly glad to learn that the Coming of Conscience scholarship will more than compensate for the scholarship funds Isabel lost through her decision of valor—a contribution to the voice she will never again question.
A Coming of Conscience Journey
I had a bit of a push-back on using A Coming of Conscience as the tagline for my novel. But I was convinced that Judy’s story, a metaphor for what the country was going through during the Vietnam years, was beyond a typical Coming of Age. The latter follows a young person on their journey through complications from which they emerge ready and resilient enough to face the world as an adult. Judy goes through this as well. However, her journey is deeper: the issues she weighs are beyond her maturity and experience and will define her character for the rest of her life. Coming of Conscience works better. As Isabel and the other applicants’ essays illustrate—this is a complex world of diversity, 24-hour news, and social media that amplifies everything, where character is being formed at an increasingly younger age. We watch world figures hashing out issues of integrity every day on the news. Children are listening… but as these applicants demonstrate… they are also learning.
We Can STILL Change the World
My intention for the scholarship was to allow young people to take pride in the hard decisions they’ve had to make and use them to become bold and active, never settling for something that they can impact. The world will always need changing for the better. I’m ever so much more confident after reading these stories. I’ll be sharing excerpts with you in future posts.
These brave young people are on the front lines of the future, as we have been. I couldn’t be more proud and confident that history doesn’t have to be a hamster wheel and we won’t need to keep starting over.