In an evening filled with tears, laughter, hard questions and easy friendship, Erin Gruwell touched the hearts and stretched the minds of Chapman students.
Gruwell, the educator whose story was the basis for The Freedom Writers feature film in 2007, met with 40 students from a leadership course in a round of question-and-answer which probed the fears, strategies and successes of transformational leadership as it has been practiced by Gruwell. The discussion ranged from Gruwell’s fears and how she overcame them
to the people who inspired her throughout her life. Erin shared anecdotes which held the students spellbound as the story of her leadership journey unfolded. So deep was the conversation, that students lined up to embrace Erin and have their photo taken with her. “Seldom does the real person who was portrayed in a film live up to the image in the film,” said senior Film Production major and LEAD 320 student, Chris Brady-Denton, ” but in this case it is the opposite. The film doesn’t do justice to the real person.”
As a novice high school English teacher, Gruwell fostered an educational philosophy that values and promotes diversity, ultimately transforming her students’ lives. She encouraged her at risk students to re-think rigid beliefs about themselves and others, reconsider daily decisions, and ultimately re-chart their futures. With her support, they chose to forego teenage pregnancy, drugs and violences to become aspiring college students, published writers, and catalysts for change. Today, Erin and the Freedom Writers teach teachers around the country how to implement her innovative lesson plans into their own classrooms.
Gruwell’s appearance at Chapman was the result of months of planning and perseverance by senior Leadership Studies Intern and IES major, Sara Hilecher. Sara learned about the Freedom Writers in a leadership course in Fall 2014, and made it her mission to bring Erin to campus in person. Funding support came from donors Brad and Christine Comp, the College of Educational Studies, the Sociology Department, Wilkinson College, the Career Development Center, and the Student Government Association.
Following the class session, it was on to a larger presentation to the waiting audience in Sandu Conference Center, which included undergraduate, graduate, and law students as well as alumni and faculty. “The greatest lesson the Freedom Writers and I have learned is to validate that everyone has a story,” said Erin. Gruwell talked about the many young people whose lives have intersected with her own, gave some of the backstory to both the feature film and the upcoming documentary about the
Freedom Writers, and took questions from the audience. “As she told story after story,” said senior, Tala Khalaf (Business Administration major & Leadership Studies minor), “I came to realize how essential stories are to identity and leadership.” Erin’s advice to aspiring educators is to “teach to the person, not to the test,” and “always be you – be yourself, and start now to make a difference. There is no need to wait.”
“Changing Education, Changing the World” is the College of Educational Studies motto. Erin Gruwell brought that slogan to life in the four hours she spent at Chapman on Tuesday night. Students, alumni and faculty stayed for over an hour to chat with Erin and have her sign their copies of The Freedom Writers Diary. “I was so impressed that her emphasis was always on her students and not on herself,” said junior IES major Caitlyn Nguyen, a LEAD 320 student, “She is who I want to be.”
Equally affected by the “phenomenal” students she met at Chapman, Erin pronounced her time with the Chapman students “Magical!” and said that she feels now like she is part of the Chapman family. She promised to return to Chapman with some of the Freedom Writers to screen their soon-to-be-released PBS documentary and to lead further discussion. Leadership studies faculty discussed service learning opportunities for Chapman students with Erin as well. It seems as though this story of collaboration is a story to be continued!