June 6, 2019
‘Treat yourself like you’re someone you care about,’ was the motto that led Allison Alston through her successful campaign for 2019–2020 Howard County Student Member of the Board (SMOB). Since late February when she received the official nomination for candidacy, Alston geared her campaign towards mental health issues and making resources more readily available for students’ well-being in schools.
Mental health was a topic that the SMOB elect had become particularly familiar to, as the focal point for her campaign was inspired by her personal experience.
“Sophomore year was terrible,” said Alston. “I tore my meniscus, my father had passed away, and my sister was going to college. So I really had to learn how to take care of myself…I realized how much easier it would [have been] for me to go through the things that I went through if I did not go through them alone. And so many people struggle with it. That’s the reason I’m driving my campaign on mental health. Life continues to get harder, and if you don’t learn [how to take care of yourself] now, it’s going to be harder to learn later.” Alston further underlined the urgency of implementing appropriate measures for students to grow comfortable with self-care as emotionally vulnerable teenagers.
Taking on a substantial campaign, balancing high-level classes, practicing soccer, and attending orchestra rehearsals have helped establish Alison as an engaged member of her community. A recognized, active student in her school, Alston found herself along with many of her peers, struggling to be mindful of her emotional status and social wellbeing. “Stress and anxiety all tie into it,” she said. “We are so pressed to be good students, we don’t take time to be people first. Noticing that in my peers and myself really helped me care about it more, especially going through what I went through last year.”
Mental health has also been a principal point of SMOB incumbent Ambika Siddabathula’s agenda. On May 16th, Howard County’s first student-led mental health forum took place, consisting of engaging activities to help students find stress relieving strategies and learn more about the resources available to the student body. Additionally, her advocacy for students’ mental health pushed for a proclamation declaring May as Mental Health Awareness month to be passed on April 25th.
Allison began her SMOB career as a representative attendee at last year’s Student Delegate Convention for 2018–2020 SMOB candidates. After being suggested to run for the position by one of her classmates, she shortly launched her campaign for what she now considers the “most important position on the Board of Education,” recognizing the vast significance of the student representative. “I realized: we’re being represented by people we haven’t had the chance to elect but one. If I could be that person [elected] to represent the voice of almost 60,000 students in the schools, then I would love to do that—especially given that we spend so much time in school,” Allison said.
As a proud African American teenager, Allison also looks forward to enforcing equity in schools, particularly for students of color in the county. “If you’re a student of color in Howard County, you are 4 times more likely to be suspended for committing the same offense as a white student. In certain schools, you’re 8 times as likely. That’s blatantly not okay,” said Alston. “[I would like] to get the chance to review the vague wording of disciplinary forms. For example, ‘student was disrespectful’. Well, what’s disrespectful to one teacher might not be disrespectful to another. It leaves too much room for bias and the interpretation of teachers.”
Allison, who has been working on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee under county superintendent Dr. Michael J. Martirano, plans on prioritizing equity across the county and amplifying student voice. Additionally, the SMOB elect mentioned notable discrepancies in the staff: “I learned from the campaign that teaching staff is 74.9% white, and that’s not reflective of the students that we have. Students need to see themselves not only in the staff but in the curriculum. One of the reasons that I ended up opening up to a teacher was that she was African American. I felt that I could relate to her more, and I felt she would understand me.”
Taking on a leadership position and speaking in front of an audience are not foreign tasks for Alston. Experienced with delivering religious sermons, spoken word, and formal speeches, Allison listed public speaking as one of her greatest strengths. When given free time, the junior enjoys writing poetry on issues she advocates for: racial equality, domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide prevention.
For Allison, becoming the Student Member of the Board means more than becoming a distant figure that can be accessed on a screen. Rather, her goals as the new SMOB is to connect directly with the students and become known as an approachable, communicative representative. “My best memory [from the campaign trail] would be visiting Harper’s Choice Middle School,” Allison said. “We just talked. We had a good time; we hung out. I feel like that’s what we need to do. As the SMOB elect, I think we need to build relationships and get to know the students, even if that means joking around with them at times.”
Ambika Siddabathula offered a final note of reflection for Alston. “The [SMOB] makes extraordinary strides to ensure that student voice is accounted for when we make our decisions...Throughout this year, one thing I learned is the importance and value of student voice. We, as students, are our best advocates,” Siddabathula said. “We should not be afraid of voicing our opinions and concerns.”