Western Oregon University students find inspiration in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and words

Standing ovation in front of a stage where three people are standing

The words and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have provided inspiration and guidance to Western Oregon University students Chanrithy Fuller-Avalos, Priscila España and Jake Sutherby.

The three students’ paths recently merged when they were chosen as the top three contestants in WOU’s MLK Jr. Student Essay Competition. The students wrote essays based on the civil rights leader’s The Drum Major Instinct sermon.

“Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve,” King Jr. said in the sermon. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

Fuller-Avalos received first place in the essay contest, España, second place, and Sutherby, third place, with Fuller-Avalos reading her essay at the annual WOU’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative dinner on Jan. 22.

Two people standing outside.
Western Oregon University students Chanrithy Fuller-Avalos
and Jake Sutherby were recognized for their MLK Jr. essays.
Chanrithy Fuller-Avalos

One of nine children, Fuller-Avalos is a first-generation college student. Her brother, Enrique Fuller-Avalos, is a first-year student, and her brother, Alejandro Fuller-Avalos, is a senior at Franklin High School and has been accepted to attend WOU in the fall. She is the vice president of WOU’s Black Student Union and a resident assistant in University Housing.

“I grew up in poverty my entire life and I worked during high school to help my family stay afloat,” Fuller-Avalos said. “I struggled with homeless but I made it to college because I had people who believed in me.”

She is thankful for her mom, LaFonda Grant, and her mentor, CM Hall, for their support and guidance and for believing in her worth and ability.

“It’s what got me here to Western and I want to pay that forward to help others,” Fuller-Avalos wrote in her essay. “We know from experience that you don’t need a college degree to serve and be in service to others, but we know that for people like my brother and I to climb out of extreme poverty and really help others, that having this college degree will give us opportunity and access that we might not otherwise get to know. It has helped open up doors for us and has led me to pursue a career in social work to help children who had similar hard life experiences like me.”

 

Person smiling outside
Western Oregon University student Priscila España took second place in the annual MLK Jr. essay contest.
Priscila España

When España read MLK’s sermon to prepare writing her essay, she noticed he frequently mentioned movement solidarity.

“It kind of blew me away because a lot of that language is still used today. A lot of what MLK Jr said and a lot of the strategies he used are still being used today to protest racial injustice,” España said. “It’s kind of amazing because his legacy continues to live on in that way too, and it’s also the part that has had the biggest influence in my own life.”

España wrote in today’s political climate that it feels crucial everyone advocates for one another, especially given the unrest that exists in the U.S.

“It feels even more imperative that everyone become a drum major and inspire others to discover their own instinct and use it for good,” she wrote. “Though more than 50 years later, King’s words ring true in the status quo; the racism and bigotry still embedded in our country’s culture has continuously and without fail lead us back to MLK’s words for inspiration, courage and strength and will continue to do so for generations to come.”

 

Jake Sutherby

Sutherby wrote that he has never been what would be described as a great man. There has always been somebody bigger, faster, stronger or smarter than him.

“None of this, however, has ever stopped me from serving my fellow man,” Sutherby wrote. “ I think this is the heart of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message, anyone can serve and as long as you do, you can be great to someone.”

Sutherby’s desire to serve inspired him to join the United States Marine Corps and continues to drive him to earn his teaching license. Sutherby wrote MKK Jr.’s legacy was that he was able to empower every man, woman and child to believe that they are capable of fighting the good fight and doing what is right beside their fellow man.

“As a white male who is a single parent to an African American child, I cannot be more thankful for the works attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I also know that Dr. King did not do it alone, he and his peers empowered a generation of people to achieve greatness through attaining that which seemed unattainable: equal rights,” he wrote.

All three students aim to use their talents to serve others with the inspiration of MLK’s words, “a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

 

All three students have shared their essays and we have included them below in their entirety.

 

A crowd standing and applauding
Chanrithy Fuller-Avalos receiving a standing ovation after reading her essay.
Chanrithy Fuller-Avalos: I Have a Dream…To Get Out of Poverty

Dr. King’s words: “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve” … In my experiences, you don’t need​         ​ a college degree, but for me, in order to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty that I, and my family have been in, I knew I would need to get a degree to do more and serve more.

Let me tell you why my college degree is an important part of my life’s journey and for my family. You see, I am a first-generation college student. My mom is African American and my dad is Mexican. People don’t even see my Mexican heritage and if I’m being completely honest, sometimes I don’t either. My younger brothers and I haven’t yet learned my dad’s first language.

I grew up as one of 9 children. Our family has experienced a house fire, homelessness, and poverty. We all had to chip in to support our family. Thinking about what Dr. King said about mutuality–I get it. We–my family–know we have been tied to one another for survival. And getting that college degree? College wasn’t on the table–or even the floor– for me. I wasn’t sure how or if I could go.

But it’s because of that connection to others, and people believing in me that I get to be here–the first one in my family. And now my brother, who started here this fall, will be the 2nd!

When I first got to Western, I was excited to get involved in different student organizations partly because I didn’t get to have a great high school experience. I had to choose working and supporting my family over high school experiences and memories. I wanted college to be different. It was a brave new world coming at Western–from urban Portland, to rural Monmouth, 97361. I wanted to understand my own identity more as a pansexual person of color. Joining the Black Student Union, I found folks like me who were also queer AND people of color. I saw my belonging. I felt I mattered there more. I really have felt that I THRIVE in BSU.

Now that I’m in my third year, the main way I serve my community is as a Resident Assistant by being a role model and leader for the future professionals of Oregon. Working with first year students has taught me that everything can be so difficult unless you have that one person​ there to support you and guide you through​  the way. It also taught me that one person can make a difference in someone’s life.

Having other people to support and guide you… other people who believe in your worth and ability… it’s what got me here to Western and I want to pay that forward to help others. We know from experience that you don’t need a college degree to serve and be in service to others, but we know that for people like my brother and I to climb out of extreme poverty and really help others, that having this college degree will give us opportunity and access that we might not otherwise get to know. It has helped open up doors for us and has led me to pursue a career in social work to help children who had similar hard life experiences like me.

Dr. King’s beliefs about being able to serve without a college degree are accurate and very much possible. But in today’s time, some of us need to be able to get that degree and better ourselves. And that is how my dream and Dr. King’s dream for us, will come true.

 

Priscila España: A Drum Major for Justice

Though it has undoubtedly been proven that there is great strength in numbers, it is important to recognize that there is also vast strength in each and every individual, and Martin Luther King Jr’s words remind us of just that. In what is perhaps one of his most famous sermons, Martin Luther King points out that anyone, regardless of their background, can lead the way to change; an ideology that was crucial to breaking the systemic racism and bigotry of the 1960s, and one that continues to motivate and inspire us to this day. For me, the importance of individual action first became apparent when I got involved with the climate justice movement back in 2018. Given that our current society runs on numbers — how much money someone makes, how many views videos get, or how many followers one has — it is easy to forget the power and influence that every single person holds.

When it comes to the climate movement, many disregard individual efforts as futile, as the problem seems too large for any of us to single-handedly tackle. However, as Dr. King mentions, we all possess the
drum major instinct. Which is to say, whether or not we want to, we all unconsciously strive to be important, and though this may initially seem selfish and arrogant, the drum major instinct has the power to motivate us to do good. The capability that we all hold as individuals allows us to influence others and create a ripple effect of good acts. In my own community, I was inspired by the many Latinx activists
who fought for climate and social justice issues seen throughout Southern Oregon. Their passion for the causes that ran rampant through our hometown was infectious in a way that made others
want to be involved in the movement for positive change, myself being one of those people. Before I knew it, I was immersed in the fight for climate and social justice; from organizing
events and workshops to attending them myself, I had found something that made me want to not only follow the drum major but also be one myself and inspire others to do the same.
I believe that this is the kind of drum major instinct that King hoped to instill in others.

Further into his sermon, King acknowledges that “the presence of the drum major instinct is why so many people are ‘joiners’”. In my own life, I am a joiner in the environmentalist movement,
but in a lot of ways, I feel as though I have gone on to become a leader. Which I think is the eventual goal; that we all step up and begin to advocate for what we believe is right after learning
and seeing the same from others. Towards the end of his sermon, King says he wants to be a drum major for justice and to say that he accomplished that in his lifetime would be an
understatement. For me, I suppose I hope to follow his lead and become my own to some degree, as his words have served as hope in the fight for a clean environment that at times feels never-ending.
In today’s political climate it feels crucial that everyone advocates for one another in any way that they can; and given the unrest that exists widespread throughout our country, it feels even more imperative that everyone become a drum major and inspire others to discover their own instinct and use it for good. Though more than 50 years later, King’s words ring true in the status quo; the racism and bigotry still embedded in our country’s culture has continuously and without fail, lead us back to MLK’s words for inspiration, courage, and strength, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

 

Jake Sutherby: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Legacy of Service

During “The Drum Major Instinct” Sermon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was articulating the notion that service and greatness are not things that can only be achieved by the upper echelon of society.  I think that sometimes when we think about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we focus too heavily on the facts that he was a doctor and a reverend, and it is these qualities that made him great.  In this sermon, however, he dispels this notion that one has to be an intellectual, physical, or cultural elite in order to serve their fellow man. A large part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy was that he was able to empower every man, woman, and child to believe that they are capable of fighting the good fight and doing what is right beside their fellow man.  Earning the credentials of doctor and reverend surely helped Dr. King on his path of service, but those titles are not what made him great.  It was his service that we should remember and it is his service that we should aim to emulate.

As a white male who is a single parent to an African American child, I cannot be more thankful for the works attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  I also know that Dr. King did not do it alone, he and his peers empowered a generation of people to achieve greatness through attaining that which seemed unattainable: equal rights.  I am not so deluded as to attest to the notion that once Civil Rights were achieved, that the world suddenly became a place where all would receive fair and equitable treatment.  We still have some ground to cover in terms of true fairness and equity and “The Drum Major Instinct” Sermon tells us that each of us has the power to make the world a better place regardless of our limitations.  I can never truly comprehend the obstacles that my son could face simply due to the color of his skin, however, the world will be less cruel to him due to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his constituents.  Now, however, the onus rests with us to achieve the world that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of during the March on Washington.

I have never been what you would call a great man.  No matter what I tried, there has always been somebody bigger, faster, stronger, or smarter than me.  None of this, however, has ever stopped me from serving my fellow man.  I think this is the heart of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message: anyone can serve and as long as you do, you can be great to someone.  My desire to serve is what drove me to join the United States Marine Corps and it is what continues to drive me to attain my teaching license.  I aim to embody the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King not through grand achievements or fabulous credentials, but through doing everything I can to aid those whom I am able to help.  Despite my shortcomings, I have a deep seated obligation to serve and to encourage those around me to do so.  We cannot simply wait around for some supposed “great” people to create the world we want to see, because as Edmond Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  I will continue to serve and I want everyone who I come in contact with to continue to serve, and I would like for us to do so in the spirit and manner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with “a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

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