Torrey Pines High School promotes acceptance through student-run campaign, social media

By Kristina Houck

“Just because I’m Middle Eastern doesn’t mean I’m a terrorist.”

“Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean I have a 4.0.”

“Just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to say.”

These are the voices of Torrey Pines High School students. To fight stereotypes, celebrate diversity and promote acceptance, students have shared personal messages and photos of themselves on the school’s new Tumblr page, “Voices of TP.”

“Acceptance is an issue people know about, but it’s at the very bottom of the list of issues to deal with,” said Torrey Pines junior Isabella Gadinis. “We’re trying to bring it to the surface. It’s a top priority.”

The school’s Peer Assistant Listeners, or PALs, Program launched the social media page mid-May. Since then, the page has grown to almost 200 posts from students, teachers and alumni.

“It’s about confronting judgments and stereotypes, and creating an inclusive environment where people are heard,” said teacher and PALs advisor Don Collins, who brought the idea to his students after seeing the University of Virginia’s Tumblr page, which celebrates the school’s diversity. “It’s about raising awareness and challenging ourselves. Once we raise awareness, we can start developing our acceptance. If we’re not aware of our preconceived ideas, we just assume that they’re true.”

Launched in 2008, PALs is a service-oriented course that offers one-on-one peer assistance, and organizes campus activities and tours. Every year, students in the program organize Red Ribbon Week to promote alcohol and drug prevention, as well as Yellow Ribbon Week to raise awareness about mental illness and promote suicide prevention.

The PALs program launched the Tumblr page during the school’s first annual Self-Care and Acceptance Weeks. After hearing about students being bullied on campus, PALs Mimi Najmabadi and Bailey Pope proposed coordinating a campaign to promote self-care and acceptance.

“It was really hard to hear — to learn someone was having such an awful experience,” said Mimi, a junior at Torrey Pines. She noted that one student said he was afraid to come to campus because he was being bullied. “We have the ability to change this.”

“I just couldn’t understand why someone would want to be mean and want to hurt someone else,” added Bailey, also a junior. “So we decided it was necessary for our school to address the issue.”

Organized by the program’s 44 sophomores, juniors and seniors during the last two weeks of May, Self-Care and Acceptance Weeks promoted diversity and tolerance through the Tumblr page and positive messages posted around campus. Held in conjunction with finals, the campaign also promoted healthy living, with student events focused on proper nutrition, exercise and stress reduction.

Students and teachers who participated in the Tumblr page received T-shirts that read, “Be kind to yourself” and “100 percent self-approved.”

“If these two weeks affected one person, switched their mindset and put them on a different path — it’s so worth it,” Isabella said.

PALs plan to organize and celebrate Self-Care and Acceptance Weeks again next year. Students have also discussed bringing the campaign to local elementary schools.

“In and of itself, this Tumblr isn’t going to change the community. But it can be part of opening a dialogue, part of increasing the voices of those underrepresented,” said Collins, who noted the nearly 2,800 students at the school speak more than 20 languages and come from more than 30 countries.

“I’m proud of the PALs for the work they’ve put in, and I’m really proud of Torrey Pines High School,” he added. “The students at Torrey Pines have shown real maturity, insight and courage in speaking out their truths and letting it be known. And other people have been receptive in hearing that. That’s how we create understanding.”

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