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Honorable mention: People of color essay contest — Nicole Kye

Freeing my voice from the iron grip of religion

By Nicole Kye

“Repent your sins.”

“God is watching.”

“That means that you don’t actually believe in Jesus.”

These were the phrases by the Catholic Church that I heard throughout elementary school. I was suffocated by priests, adults, and even peers who criticized my every move.

I was curious and ambitious, but anxiety related to the Church held me in its iron grip. Even though I envisioned myself as a girl who could speak assuredly to crowds, fearlessly lead others, and make a difference in the world, I was trapped by the refrain of “what ifs” constantly echoing in my mind. I feared having my own thoughts, being rejected from the Church, and even missing a single day of mass.

Once entering public middle school, I was introduced to the Franklin Cares Club. The club of six members helped with basic tasks such as bake sales and popcorn stands to raise money for school events.

That’s when the vice principal in charge of the organization marched into my life. Mr. Wu was an energetic man who always sported a tie, rolled-up sleeves, and carried a creative and insightful demeanor. He would excitedly buzz around us students as we completed our tasks, always checking in and challenging us.

Mr. Wu’s favorite question to ask me was “Why not?” If I was skeptical about joining a club, he’d ask “Why not?” If I hesitated to join a debate, he encouraged, “Why not?” If I expressed the most minute hesitation about expressing my true beliefs, he emboldened me by saying, “Why not?” Throughout middle school, he consistently challenged me with this question.

At the beginning of seventh grade, the school held a student council election. To participate in the election, students had to write a speech and deliver it in front of the entire school. I was curious about running, but right on cue, the forbidding chorus of “what ifs” assailed my mind: “What if no one votes for me?” “What if I miss mass for student council meetings?”

“What if my ideas are not accepted?”

But now there was another voice in my head. The voice of Mr. Wu and his trademark expression — “Why not?” “Why not try?” “Why not pursue this goal?” His mighty “why nots” began to drown out my nervous “what ifs.”

I ended up running for student council and being elected secretary. And I didn’t stop there. Mr. Wu’s words had imbued me with a new determination. I embraced the challenge and developed a driving confidence to engage in various clubs and connect with new people.

Now, when I’m faced with a decision, the voice that asks me “Why not?” is my own. This mantra has given me the courage to leave the Church, become the president of multiple clubs, and help organize a countywide festival. I have used these simple words to be

Nicole Kye

at back that iron hold religion held me in and to become the fearless fighting female my younger self envisioned. While my former church community has forgotten me, I have found new freedom in fighting for human rights, racial equality, and in supporting the LGBTQ+ communities. As a first-generation, non-religious woman and scholar of color, I can only hope that the secular communities on campuses across America warmly accept the new diverse group of incoming first-year students this semester. Finally, I can confidently say that rather than getting engulfed with angst, I now boldly charge into a world of unknowns, with a chorus of “Why nots?” spurring me onward.

Nicole, 19, is a first-year student at Cornell University and hopes to become a cardiac surgeon. Nicole volunteered at the public library and local hospital during high school and also was president of the Civics Youth Corps.




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