Last school year, Chalkbeat launched its paid Student Voices Fellowship to give teens a platform to share their stories about how their educational experiences shaped them. The impact of their work rippled beyond their communities, as major newspapers republished their essays, podcasts invited them on to speak, and their essays won journalism awards.

With applications for the 2022-23 school year now open to public school students in New York and Newark, New Jersey, Chalkbeat wanted to give you a chance to hear directly from our first cohort of students. 

Students told me they joined the fellowship program to strengthen their writing skills – to prepare them for everything from college essays to future careers – but they also learned how to use their stories and experiences to advocate for their communities and other students. 

Here’s what they had to say. 

Some responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Jeremiah Griffith

Rising senior at Noble Academy in Chicago

Jeremiah Griffith (Courtesy photo)

An aspiring journalist accustomed to writing from a more objective place, Griffith said the fellowship allowed him to incorporate himself into the story as the main character for the first time. He said: “It forced me to be able to write about myself. I was able to sit down and actually think, and find a space where I could think deeply about what I wanted to write about.”

Ajibola Junaid

Graduate of Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago; freshman at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

After Junaid’s schoolmates read her story, she said more students became comfortable voicing their opinions to administrators to discuss problems occurring in their school. “If I didn’t do what I did, the students in my school would not have the opportunities they currently have,” she said.

Telling your story “it’s going to open doors of opportunities for many people that are coming after you. In respect of the circumstance or situation, don’t be scared to voice your opinion because you’re not just helping yourself, you’re helping generations after you.” 

Interested in becoming a Chalkbeat Student Voices Fellow? Here’s how to apply.

Chimdindu Okafor

Graduate of North Star Academy Lincoln Park High School in Newark; freshman at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“It was just really beautiful. The whole experience. Writing … put me in a space that I’ve never been in before,” said Okafor, who relished the creativity that the fellowship fostered.

“It allowed me to break apart all of the interactions that I’ve had with people and all of the different things that have gone on throughout my days, trying to really assess: How did that make me feel, and how could that potentially go into a story that [gives people] insight into an experience that they may not resonate with?”

Umme Orthy

Graduate of Student Leadership Academy at  Beeber in Philadelphia; freshman at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania

Orthy, who immigrated from Bangladesh and speaks three languages, said the fellowship helped her improve her writing in English, telling me: “I feel like I had a powerful voice to share with others. I never thought that I could do that because I never had the opportunity to do something like that.”

Daniela Palacios

Graduate of Science Park High School in Newark; freshman at Columbia University

“Having some support is definitely really important when trying to write any type of story and making sure that the message is delivered properly,” said Palacios. She said the fellowship taught her how to create community impact through storytelling. “However, it’s still really important that the exact thing that you want to say, and even the way you want to say it, is true to who you are and it’s true to what you value. Always know that your story is really powerful and it can’t impact many people’s lives. People in your community and people in the world.” 

NEXT: Interested in becoming a Chalkbeat Student Voices Fellow? Here’s how to apply.

Want to hear more? Here’s what Chimdindu Okafor and Daniela Palacios had to say about their fellowship experiences this past year during a Chalkbeat event on Instagram Live.