Magda Smith is a sophomore at Cornell University. She is interested in creating positive change through policy and promoting nuance, empathy, and open-mindedness in political discussions. In her free time, she loves to read and go on walks. Magda’s essays, songs, and poems have won several national and international awards including a Merit Award from the National YoungArts Foundation and a Gold Medal, a Silver Medal, and 28 more honors from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Over the summer and autumn of 2020, she worked as a researcher with the Global Student Policy Alliance to create a database of every country in the world’s climate policies.
Click Here or below To Watch Magda Smith’s Winning Speech!
Our Interview With Magda
Was this the first time you entered the contest?
How did you hear about the contest?
I was looking through a list of student contests the day of the deadline and happened to stumble across this one, and the question aligned perfectly with my interests.
What inspired your work?
I’ve been concerned about political polarization for several years. The people I know andcare about seem to be growing steadily more and more convinced that the other side istheir enemy, wants them literally dead, and is sharpening its knives to come and destroy everything they care about. Not only is this a tad overdramatic, it could hardly be farther from reality—I know I’m only a naively optimistic teenager with a lifetime to “see the truth,” but the more people I talk to on different sides of the political aisle, the more convinced I am that most Americans share common hopes, common fears, and common values. We all want to do what’s right. We all want to see our loved ones healthy and happy. We all want to be proud of the world we leave behind for our children. Why should we let ourselves forget this merely because we have different visions of how to get there?
What did you learn while creating your entry?
I suppose I learned that applying the day of the deadline sometimes works out in the
How do you plan to spread the word this year to your peers about the importance of the U.S Constitution?
I’m always interested in talking to people about their political views and the arguments, dreams, goals, and values that undergird them. Regarding the Constitution, I’d like to suggest to everyone that they form their opinion about it through careful, nuanced
analysis. I’d like to challenge both the people who dismiss the Constitution as yet another symbol of oppressive government and the people who revere it as though it is sacred- as though it is evidence that other types of government are uniformly evil.
How do your friends respond to history or talking about the Constitution?
My friends love talking about history and I love discussing it with them. Two of my best friends want to run for office in opposing political parties, so it’s endlessly fascinating to me to talk with them about their opinions on contemporary political issues and how history shapes their perspectives. Both of my friends draw many of their political beliefs from respect for the Constitution, which makes it all the more interesting to see where they diverge. And this last fact, I think, confirms my thesis that most Americans of supposedly opposing sides are much more alike than we are different!
What do you love about U.S. History and the forming of our government?
I like that the United States is a nation of dreams and dreamers, who have stood strong against seemingly insurmountable tides to advocate for progress, freedom, and equal rights. While this is easy to forget today, the idea that “all men are created equal” and endowed “with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” seemed like a crazy, unbelievable, undreamable dream when first set forth in the Declaration of Independence. The actions of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and other brave activists towards the abolition of slavery seemed at the time to be an even more undreamable dream, but one similarly rooted in the idea that all human beings are intrinsically equal and intrinsically deserving of certain rights. The women’s rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the movement against segregation, and various other campaigns for equal rights in the United States all began as dreams, but they succeeded thanks to their advocates’ ability to weave those dreams together with the dreams of the entire nation in a common American language: the language of freedom, faith, independence, and opportunity. I like that throughout the United States’ history, there have been many beautiful times when empathy prevailed over division and kindness prevailed over resentment. I like that these times all have their roots in seemingly undreamable dreams, including the great dream of ideals set forth in the first line of the Declaration of Independence and the great dreams of concrete reality that succeeded in part due to their interconnectedness as parts of a larger history. I like that, although terrible atrocities have scarred the pages of the American story, we still dare to dream these dreams, we still dare to embrace the potential of the United States, and we still dare to believe that the best parts of our nation’s history are worth aspiring to.
Which U.S. historical site would you like to visit?
It would be fascinating to tour the offices of the top U.S. government officials and federal agencies and get to ask the people who work there questions about what they do. Most of it is probably top secret, so I wouldn’t get to learn much, but it would be incredibly interesting to get to see the day-to-day operations of these institutions regardless.
Which American historical figure is most influential/inspirational to you?
Definitely Frederick Douglass. I think he’s incredible. His ability to always approach people with empathy as individuals, in what could easily be called the starkest and most black-and-white (literally) of situations, is nothing if not amazing to me. If it weren’t for that ability—the ability to speak to the best in people, to connect across differences, to emphasize our common humanity, to refuse the easy path of generalizations and tribalism, to never stop fighting for the beautiful potential in everyone and everything—we would live in a world without art, without honor, without friendship, and without love. However gargantuan my problems seem in the moment, they pale in comparison to those Douglass faced in his life, and if he could never let himself be subsumed in resentment, never give in to mass hatred, and always aspire to what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” so can I!
Who is your greatest role model?
My greatest role model who is currently alive is Daryl Davis, who I talked about in my speech. He’s a black man who decided to start going to KKK meetings and talking to the Klan members as a fellow human being, somehow not being cowed by the possibility that they might kill him, and swayed over 200 members’ minds, causing them to submit their robes to Davis, denounce their former ideology, and shake his hand as an equal. A lot of people don’t believe in heroes and think that the power of friendship to overcome villainy is confined to the pages of comic books, but, well, I disagree.
What in your life are you most passionate about?
I’m most passionate in my life about telling stories, capturing human emotion and understanding the human experience in a way that is meaningful to people. I think stories are the most powerful things in the world, stronger than rock or steel or iron—stories can make or break armies, can win wars, can raise empires, can save worlds or destroy them, can shift the course of history through the stirring of a human heart or the changing of a human mind.
When I was in high school, I often told stories through poetry, but now I much prefer telling stories through songs. My prefered medium may change as I get older, but I’m certain I will always be happiest immersed in stories, reveling in their power, hoping to counterbalance the ugliest stories people have told with the kindest, to contribute my own to the common language of the human species.
How do you spend your free time?
I write songs! I hope to start releasing them soon. I have written an album that I am very excited about, which explores the experience of being a teenage girl in high school through the stories of 15 different girls. I really want to get a record deal and create this album, which is titled Possibility. As of now, I plan to release several of my songs independently and hope that people will like them.
What are your plans for the future?
I want my legacy to be the hearts I’ve touched and the kindness I’ve left behind. I don’t want to ever find myself cutting corners because it’s easy or making small concessions against my principles and then convincing myself it’s for some greater good down the road. More specifically, I want to pursue singing and songwriting at whatever level I can, depending whether people like the music I create. I want to keep telling stories that move people and help them get through their day and hopefully make their lives better! I will be a sophomore at Cornell University next year, studying Government and International Relations.
If you could do one super impactful thing to help people, what would it be?
I want to create music that is meaningful to people and helps them get through their day. I hope that when I release my songs, I can find a way to get them to people and people will find them meaningful. I know that for me, music has gotten me through a lot and vastly improved my life. I would often look forward to the end of the school or work day so that I could listen to my favorite songs on the bus home. I would like to do the same for others—I hope to make music that inspires people, makes them feel and think, shows them that they’re not alone in what they’re going through, and gives them something to look forward to even if their day has gone terribly.
Why is the Constitution relevant today?
The Constitution is perhaps the most important piece of political theory ever written, and it is relevant on the basis of its longstanding impact and influence. The Constitution offers a moral justification for a system of government in a way that is different from virtually all of its historical alternatives—governments typically justify their legitimacy through force, through order, or through a supposed mandate of Heaven, but the American Constitution makes a vastly different claim: this government is legitimate because all people are equally are entitled to certain rights, the government exists to protect those rights, and the people comprising the government are selected by the people they serve. The Constitution tells a story, a story that shapes the United States and its people. Everyone in the United States, everyone in a Western democracy, and really everyone in the world has interacted in some way with the story of the United States, and whatever one thinks about that story, it is undeniably relevant. The Constitution is also, of course, relevant because it is the supreme law of the land in the most powerful superpower the world has ever known, with the largest economy, strongest military, and most substantial direct influence on the rest of the world in all of history.