Brave students who pushed boundaries and changed the world

As majority of our history lessons are filled with stories of brave men only, we rarely find out about others who played equally important roles in making this world a better place. Many of such stories are of students, who by their simple act of bravery, left a mark on the world forever. In this blog, we pay tribute to these students; to honour them and to take inspiration from them.

Malala Yousafzai

Youngest Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani student who was shot by terrorists in her hometown Swat for wanting to go to school and advocating for girls’ education.

Copyright: Malala Yousafzai

Born on July 12 in 1997, Malala lived and studied in Swat in a school founded by her father. A popular tourist spot, Swat later fell under the control of terrorists who drastically changed the fabric of the peaceful society. Crimes were brutally punished in the streets and girls’ schools were bombed; in these challenging times, Malala began blogging for the BBC about life under terrorists. Her activism made her a target and she was shot in the head on her way back home from school.

Malala miraculously survived and continued her struggle for children’s education and in 2014, at the age of 17, was awarded the Nobel prize along with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. She is the second Pakistani, after famed physicist Mohammad Abdus Salam, to have won the international prize.

Linda Brown

An activist for racial equality in education, Linda Brown was a citizen of United States who was at the centre of the landmark court decision which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.  

An African-American living in Kansas, Linda wanted to enroll at Sumner School in Topeka in 1950 and when her admission application was denied based on her skin colour, her parents along with other parents filed a class action lawsuit against the school.

A third grade student at the start of the legal case, Linda did not get to attend the school since she was junior high student by the time the verdict was announced. As an adult, Linda attended Washburn and Kansas State universities and then returned to Topeka to raise a family and work for desegregation in the area’s school system. On March 25 in 2018, she passed away at the age of 76.

Parkland students

In United States, where incidents of mass shooting are on the rise, Parkland students are activists calling for gun reforms to bring an end to this madness. Often known as Never Again MSD, the student movement grew in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 students were killed in February 2018.

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Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, including Emma Gonzalez (C), stand together on stage with other young victims of gun violence at the conclusion of the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Survivors of the shooting, Parkland students have staged country-wide protests, called for tighter regulations to prevent gun violence and harshly criticised lawmakers who receive donations from the powerful National Rifle Association. One of their stated goals is to impact 2018 elections in which all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested.

With former US president Barack Obama as their admirer and supporter, Parkland students and their activism have been credited for changes in favour of gun reforms such as the new Florida gun control law introduced just a month after the deadly shooting.

Tiananmen student activists

In the summer of 1989, peaceful demonstrators – mainly students – descended on Tiananmen Square in Beijing to call for radical political and economic reforms. The Chinese government, however, responded with force and killed scores of protesters; due to lack of official data, the number of civilian deaths is estimated somewhere between 180 and 10,454.

In the 1980s, with China undergoing economic development and social changes, there were serious concerns among the public regarding increasing inflation, shift to market economy and restrictive political participation. There were calls for introducing democratic norms, accountability and freedom of speech both for individuals as well as the press.

What started as a gathering to mourn the death of a liberal national leader in Beijing soon spread to other cities including people from all walks of life; at the time of its height, there were protests taking place in at least 400 cities. For the rest of the world, the Tiananmen Square protests were immortalised by the photo of a lone man standing in front a tank stationed to suppress the demonstration.

Alex Chow and Lester Shum

In the wake of Chinese government’s attempt to make changes in Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2014, students from across the region gathered in the streets to protest what they saw as restrictive representation.

Student leaders Lester Shum, Nathan Law and Alex Chow hug as they arrive at the High Court. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

As secretary-general and deputy secretary-general of Hong Kong Federation of Students, Alex Chow and Lester Shum were at the forefront of the demonstrations, gathering outside government headquarters, occupying major city intersection and blocking important roads. From being arrested during sit-ins to holding televised talks with government representatives, Alex and Lester made peaceful efforts to bring political reform and protect autonomy and freedom of Hong Kong.

Their movement swelled in a matter of days, with over 100,000 people protesting at one point in time. While this pro-democracy agitation – which lasted for around three months – ended in little gains for the protestors, what it did was help galvanise the young segment of the society which was earlier uninterested in any political role.

White Rose movement

A student-led campaign against the atrocities of the Nazi regime, White Rose was a non-violent resistance group at the University of Munich. Its main tactic was to distribute pamphlets and draw graffiti in public spaces to encourage people to speak up against the system of tyranny they were living in.

While the group was supported by several others, the core leadership was made up of siblings Hans Scholl and Sophie Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy and musicology.

White Rose wrote, printed and distributed six pamphlets in total which they initially distributed only in Munich but later managed to send to many cities in southern Germany with the help of secret couriers. Their courageous activities only lasted for eight months when most of them were arrested and sent to the gallows.  

Teboho MacDonald Mashinini

In the Apartheid era of South Africa, when the government introduced Afrikaan as a medium of instruction in schools, students from Soweto neighbourhood of Johannesburg rose in protest against what they saw as a discriminatory move.

Image SAhistory

With Afrikaan seen as the language of the oppressor, the decree was rejected vehemently by the students. Around 20,000 black students marched to protest the change; Teboho MacDonald Mashinini, primary leader of the movement, led students of one of the affected schools.In response to the protest, police unleashed violence on unarmed students directly shooting at them as well as setting their dogs on them. Government statistics put the number of students killed to 23, however, these figures are highly contested and estimates range from 176 to 700 people.

Known as the leader of the uprising, Teboho fled South Africa to London and then different countries in Africa. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1990 with his body repatriated to South Africa for burial.

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