They Started As Sixth Graders, and Graduated High School Transformed

Mon, 09/20/2021 - 12:32pm

Claire Denault’s Southern California private high school had a problem with classism. So she decided to approach the issue in a way she knew would resonate with her peers: through story.

As the student government leader who facilitated a weekly school-wide forum, she invited students to anonymously submit testimonies and personal accounts about how they had been disenfranchised or marginalized because of their socioeconomic status. Claire and other students read those narratives at town hall, and intense dialogue followed—that day and for weeks after.

“You can throw facts and figures at someone all day, but what can make a profound difference in someone’s perspective is someone else’s personal story. We as human beings are hardwired to hear personal stories,” she said.

Claire, who graduated high school last June, came to understand the power of testimony through the William P. Lauder Junior Internship Program at USC Shoah Foundation.

Two Sundays a months during the school year, from ages 11 to 18, Claire spent most of the day in a classroom at USC’s Leavey Library with about 40 other teens, engaging with video testimony from survivors of genocides including the Holocaust, through critical thinking exercises and dialogue about how to apply the lessons of those testimonies to her own life.

As part of her internship, Claire met survivors, helped transcribe testimonies, and she visited Poland and Washington, D.C., with USC Shoah Foundation. She prepared video projects and shared testimony with her history classes, and, in her final year as an intern, she became a peer mentor, helping younger students who were just starting the program.

Claire said that in addition to giving her the confidence and the skills to speak out against injustice, proactively and in real time, the internship also shaped who she is as person.

“I’m really interested now in genocide education and the power of testimony, and in dialogue and communication, so much so that it has impacted other facets of my life,” she said. “It made me more interested in social justice and history and the intersection of those two.”

Claire is in her first year at Georgetown University studying linguistics, and she plans to study law in the area of human rights.

About 40 students a year are selected from a pool of applicants to participate in the William P. Lauder Junior Internship Program, and a separate Leadership Workshop meets in the summer. Applications are now being accepted for the program starting in November, which will be a hybrid program with in-person and online options. Some 350 students have participated in the program since its inception in 2014.

“At the core of everything are the testimonies, and the stories,” said Lesly Culp, Head of Programs in Education at USC Shoah Foundation. “If students walk away knowing names, it helps them humanize the stories, and that helps them understand the impact of racism and discrimination and where things can end up if individuals don’t take a stand against hate.” The Junior Interns beta-tested Dimensions in Testimony, asking questions and receiving real-time answers from recorded interactive biographies, and they serve as a sounding board for new material for USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness educational platform. Some 17 million students in 90 countries have accessed the Institute’s testimony-based educational programs, which incorporate testimony from the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, the Cambodian Genocide, the Guatemalan Genocide, the Nanjing Massacre, anti-Rohingya mass violence, and others.

“It was hard to grapple with the amount of hatred that exists in our world, especially when I was younger,” Claire said. “But we also saw a lot of stories of resilience, and I am blown away by people’s ability to find hope in the worst experiences, and to have hope for the next generation.”

Like Claire, Gabriel Hackel, now in his first year at Vassar college in New York, was also in the pilot group of Junior Interns in 2014, and he, too, stayed with the program until he graduated high school near Los Angeles in 2021.

“I stayed in the program for so long because every year my capacity to understand these stories grew, and I was able to gain more from what I was learning,” he said. In that first year, he joined a USC Shoah Foundation trip to Poland, and met Paula Lebovics, who inspired him with her mantra: “Silence is not an option.”

Because of the program, Gabriel says he looks for the human story wherever he goes.

When he volunteered to cook and serve dinner at a homeless shelter once a month throughout high school, he circulated in the dining room, engaging with people and hearing their stories. When he became a leader in a school group that addresses global issues, he arranged to connect his peers with teenaged Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, to share stories over video chat. Even when Gabriel helped a friend through a crisis, it was his ability to absorb his friend’s narrative that he believes was most comforting to his friend.

Gabriel counted off the smaller ways the program changed him. More family members opened up to him about their relatives’ Holocaust experiences. He became more likely to speak up in English class, to think critically in history class, and to be comfortable as a public speaker.

Both Gabriel and Claire wrote about aspects of their USC Shoah Foundation experience in their college essays, and both were accepted at several prestigious universities, including USC (after much deliberation, both opted to be on the East Coast).

In 2019, Gabriel went to Prague, Budapest, and the Terezín concentration camp with USC Shoah Foundation. When he returned, he became a peer mentor, and he says becoming a teacher was most rewarding part of the experience.

“I was in between teacher and student, and that was the best of both worlds—I was still learning and absorbing, but I was also guiding others,” he said.

And passing it forward, he has learned, is what the whole enterprise of remembering is about.

“Everything I learned—the trips I took, talking to my family, understanding these stories and this history—none of that means anything unless I can share the stories.”

The 2021-2022 William P. Lauder Junior Internship Program will occur on ten Sundays between November and April, in person and online. The deadline to apply is Oct. 29.

Click here for more information and to apply.

Read about the summer program here.


Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.