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Democratic Dissent and #psu2022

Jenna Spinelle on how Penn State is helping the next generation of democratic citizens.

Over the weekend, Penn State joined a number of colleges and universities in saying that it will not penalize high school seniors who are disciplined for engaging in protests against gun violence at their schools:

 
A cynic could easily say this is a low-risk political win for the university. But from where I sit, there are several reasons why this statement is so important — both for Penn State and for our democracy.

Full disclosure

Before joining the McCourtney Institute, I spent seven years as an undergraduate admissions counselor at Penn State. I helped thousands of prospective students through the application process. I can assure you that, for many of them, it was the most stressful moment in their young lives.

For most high school seniors, the pressure to get in, to get accepted at your first choice, is very real. Applicants pore over every last word of their essays, strive to eke out every possible point in their entrance exams, and agonize of which classes to schedule, all in order to make their applications most competitive.

A frequent source of consternation was a question that asked applicants to disclose any previous criminal charges or other disciplinary action that had been taken against them. And yes, disciplinary action that came as a result of participating in a protest would certainly fit the requirement for disclosure.

Answering “yes” to that question means an application is subject to additional review by Penn State’s Office of Student Conduct. This process takes time and anything that causes a delay in receiving a decision is enough to send some students (and their parents) into a tailspin of anxiety about their pending application.

Joining the Class of 2022

At this time of year, high school seniors are in the midst of deciding which university’s Class of 2022 they will join. If you search #psu2022 on social media, you’ll see lots of excited students sporting Penn State gear and beginning to connect with each other as an incoming class.

Despite all those celebrations, even those seniors joining #psu2022 are not entirely out of the woods. Every incoming first-year student needs to verify that they graduated from high school before they can officially enroll in classes or begin receiving financial aid.

Then there are those students who are still on the waitlist, either for Penn State or another dream school. In this case, the pressure is definitely still on and the anxiety grows more and more each day as their friends make decisions while they remain in limbo.

I can recall talking with waitlisted students who would call our office nearly every day to see if there was an update on their status or when they would hear from us. This group definitely does not want to do anything to rock the boat and lessen their chances of being admitted from the waitlist.

From disincentive to empowerment

All of these factors add up to a major disincentive for high school seniors to engage in marches, walk-outs, or other forms of protest at school.

Depending on what they do and how the school reacts, they could put themselves in jeopardy of not graduating from high school, at which point they would be ineligible to start college. Or, they run the risk that a university might revoke their admission decision.

Either way, those are pretty high stakes to add to a process that’s already pretty stressful. Knowing how this all works, I wouldn’t blame any senior who chose to sit on the sidelines and thereby ensure that they could start at their first-choice school this fall.

Penn State’s statement frees its Class of 2022—as well as those in classes 23,24 and 25--to take a stand for a cause they believe in.

For that reason, their action is far more than just an easy political win; it’s the first step in empowering thousands of students around the country to make their voices heard. Indeed, it is the first step in becoming a full and contributing democratic citizen.

Penn State is right to welcome any senior who is thoughtful and concerned enough to take this step. And all of us should be proud to have them as part of #psu2022.