In early September, only days into her first semester at New York University, Rowland Hall alum Katie Kern ’21 was already busy.
Like other first-year students across the country, Katie had been navigating the numerous tasks involved with starting college, from exploring campus and starting classes (she’s currently studying politics) to settling into dorm life and meeting new people—all while adapting to the evolving safety measures of the pandemic, and even dodging severe weather: some of her first days in the city included record-breaking rainfall caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
“The unprecedented hurricane that occurred within my first week of moving in was definitely a little shocking,” said Katie.
Starting college against a backdrop of flooded subways and sidewalks, as well as surging cases of COVID-19, isn’t the preference of any new college student. But instead of giving into what she calls the “heaviness” of global issues like these, Katie has been leaning on her well-established activism experience to look for solutions. Only days after arriving at NYU, whether on coffee dates with new friends or in class lectures, she’s been involved in plenty of conversations aimed at solving tough problems.
For those who know Katie, this isn’t surprising. During her four years at Rowland Hall, she was a blur of the same kind of activity. In addition to a full course load, she was a member of the school’s Roots & Shoots club, Navajo Project, mental health educators, and dance company. Off campus, she interned at Alliance for a Better Utah and taught dance to refugees at a 4-H after-school program. And even with all that going on, Katie also volunteered at least eight hours a week for March for Our Lives Utah, the local chapter of the student-led organization that’s helping to drive US gun reform—a commitment so impressive that, as Katie learned in August, it earned her YWCA Utah’s inaugural Leader of Tomorrow Award, an honor designed to highlight the outstanding volunteerism of Utah women under the age of 19.
“YWCA Utah wants to recognize that activists are doing incredible work while young,” said Lisa Brown Miranda, associate director of admission for Rowland Hall’s Lincoln Street Campus and member of the YWCA Utah Board of Directors.
And to the selection committee, Katie’s work most definitely stood out: as an early supporter of the March for Our Lives movement (she joined as a lead ambassador right after its 2018 founding), Katie was able to play a key role in the Utah chapter’s administration, and was ultimately named state co-director her senior year, alongside fellow high school student Tory Peters. In the co-director role, Katie helped lead difficult but necessary conversations about the toll of gun violence, as well as encouraged legislative change.
“Katie wanted to look for practical ways to approach gun safety,” said Ryan Hoglund, Rowland Hall’s director of ethical education, who taught and mentored Katie, giving him a front-row seat to her dedication to March for Our Lives Utah. “She worked with her peers, took to the airways on KRCL's RadioACTive program [in December 2019 and February 2020], lobbied the Utah legislature, and ultimately developed a school curriculum to increase the awareness of gun safety: what to do if you find a gun as a young child, and how to keep a loved one who is struggling with mental illness and is considering self-harm safe.”
Of the many March for Our Lives projects she supported, Katie said she’s especially proud of the group’s legislative work, including her own experience testifying for universal background checks at the state capitol in February 2020. Even though it was scary, she said, because she knew she’d be speaking to a group largely against gun reform, it underscored her commitment to finding a solution to the country’s gun-violence problems. It also taught her to see activism from a big-picture perspective: she might not be part of the group that gets a reform bill passed, but she’s helping to lay the groundwork.
“Every year we make a little bit of progress,” said Katie. “It’s going to be awhile, and understanding that is important. But we have the utmost determination to get it done, and I’m excited for the future.”
For Lisa, watching Katie receive recognition for her volunteerism is exciting: Lisa first met Katie when she was a prospective ninth grader and remembers being impressed even then by the young student’s early devotion to grassroots work. Knowing Rowland Hall supports, values, and celebrates these kinds of contributions—and works with students to develop their own unique voices—Lisa was thrilled when Katie enrolled in the Upper School, and she spent the next four years enthusiastically watching the young leader do great things, both in the school community and for the state of Utah.
“Katie did everything she thought she was going to do—and more,” said Lisa. “She’s not the kind of person to face a challenge and look for ways to dodge it. She just jumps in, using her gifts to make others’ lives better.”
Katie remembers sharing with Lisa this desire to volunteer at the grassroots level, and noted that she ultimately chose to attend Rowland Hall because she was impressed by our teachers’ obvious passion for their subjects—something she recognized in herself. And Katie credits many Rowland Hall instructors for playing a role in her journey, like history teacher Nate Kogan and English teachers Kody Partridge and Carolyn Hickman for helping her better understand politics and how the legislature works, and Director of Arts and Co-Director of Dance Sofia Gorder for showing her, a longtime and passionate dancer, how arts and activism intersect. She is also grateful to the school for providing safe spaces, whether in classrooms or at the Dinner & Dialogue events Katie helped plan and lead, to practice having the crucial conversations necessary to spark change.
“Rowland Hall gave me a lot of space and independence to do what I wanted, and I did feel supported,” Katie said.
And as evidenced by how she’s already spending her time at college, Katie isn’t slowing down. She plans to continue to devote herself to a variety of movements because, as she explained, “it feels very heavy, all the problems going on.” And she hopes this involvement—and perhaps even her Leader of Tomorrow Award—will encourage others to take action. After all, after spending so much time at the grassroots level, she’s learned how empowering it is to help chip away at problems that, at first glance, seem too enormous to tackle.
I definitely feel hope in moments when community comes together.—Katie Kern ’21
“I hope other young women—or students in general—recognize that they can do something about all these crises, that they can get involved,” she reflected.
And contrary to what some might think, Katie said, it doesn’t take much time to make a difference: she recommends everyone set aside just 10 minutes a day to learn about an issue affecting their community, and then find opportunities to help fix them. This is key, because in a world filled with nonstop news about everything that’s going wrong, having a hand in change is inspiring. In fact, Katie said, it’s these moments—watching communities join together in pursuit of solutions—that make her most optimistic about the future.
“I definitely feel hope in moments when community comes together,” she said.