Sarah O’Connell
Category: 2020 High School Winner

Sarah O’Connell

Clemson University

Bryan Stevenson exemplifies the mantra, “You have received much, now give much.”

Before junior year, I read Just Mercy by criminal-justice advocate and attorney Bryan Stevenson for summer reading. Just Mercy unfolds through a series of anecdotes of children sentenced to life in prison, victims wrongly accused, and misplaced justice due to racial and societal prejudice. Bryan Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law School and grew up removed from the harsh southern racism. He could have lived comfortably with a successful career as a business or tax lawyer that would have not only lead to a massive paycheck but also significantly less heartache. However, Stevenson pursued the long-standing broken institutions in a society not ready for the radical change he suggested.

As an African American man, Stevenson felt a personal connection to the many men and women for whom the strongest evidence against their innocence was their race. However, he could have easily turned a cheek and said, it’s not my problem. Rather than marginalizing people with different experiences and problems, Bryan Stevenson’s work taught me our collective brokenness can be a source of compassion. I’ve had the privilege of not caring because the brokenness of our criminal justice system doesn’t directly affect me. I pushed those problems aside because they weren’t my own. Bryan Stevenson’s message was further personalized when Anthony Ray Hinton, an African American man wrongly convicted who served 30 years on death row, came to speak at my school after many of us read Hinton’s book, The Sun Does Shine. Hinton was one of many who Stevenson worked relentlessly to exonerate. I experienced a more profound impact after reading about Hinton’s case and Stevenson’s work, hearing it in person, and then recently watching the movie Just Mercy.

Recently, I was chosen to lead a parent-teacher-student book club to discuss Just Mercy. It’s one thing to read or see something inspiring, but it’s another to allow it to permeate your conversations and potentially change your viewpoint. Bryan Stevenson pursued equality and ultimately a passion that became more than his career, it became his life. His work gives his life a deeper meaning. For so long, I thought I needed to go to college and get a degree that would help me have a successful career which would lead me to a fulfilling life. It was his story that created a paradigm shift in both my definition of success and fulfillment. I want a life with a purpose.

I’ve been blessed with many luxuries others have been denied, so I want to use Stevenson’s example of not allowing my comfort to be a cop-out from others’ struggles. Bryan Stevenson taught me to step into others’ pain because, “When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise…You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us” (Stevenson).