One of the outcomes of a Vassar education is the conviction that if you can dream it, you can do it. Three examples from the summer of 2013: film major Cesar Cervantes ’14 created an after-school film program for inner-city teens in Los Angeles; animal rights activist Rockwell Schwartz ’14 helped to rescue 3,000 chickens; and political science major Seth Warner ’14 launched his campaign for public office.
Making movies since he was nine years old, Cervantes hatched the idea for an after-school film program in his old neighborhood after he won an award for his own work from the British Academy of Film. The award enabled him to take a class in filmmaking when he was in high school. He was inspired to pass on that knowledge to others, so he sought permission from his former high school film teacher to recruit interested students.
“I told them they could make any kind of film they wanted,” he explains. “So much of high school is about placing limits on kids, and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
Due to overcrowding in the inner-city district, the school stays open all year. Some of Cervantes’ recruits were attending school during the summer, while others came just to be part of the film program. He started with about two dozen students, and 11 of them stayed for the summer, creating a total of eight films.
Cervantes says one of his biggest challenges was showing one of his students how to shoot a car-crash scene. “We had to do some pretty fancy editing on that one,” he says.
When the films were completed, Cervantes arranged to have them screened at Creative Artists Agency, one of Hollywood’s top talent agencies, in Century City. About 130 of the students’ friends and family members attended. “It was genuinely rewarding to see these kids create something out of nothing,” he says. “One student wrote to me and said he had found a creative spark he didn’t know he had.”
A science, technology, and society major from Ridgewood, NJ, Schwartz worked for the summer as an intern with an organization called Animal Place, near Sacramento, CA. One of her tasks was helping to rescue some chickens from a nearby egg farm. “The chickens there are routinely gassed when they’re about two years old because the shells of the eggs they lay become too soft for them to be shipped,” Schwartz explains. “The farm planned to gas about 50,000, and while we were able to rescue 3,000 of them, it was emotionally difficult to know 47,000 others were dying.”
Part of Schwartz’s job was to research laws governing the transportation of chickens by air. She learned commercial aircraft are barred from transporting live chickens, but Animal Place secured a private chartered plane from an anonymous donor, and arrangements were soon made to fly them from Hayward, CA to New York City, where they would then be taken to several animal sanctuaries. The massive chicken airlift, which took place Sept. 5, generated plenty of media coverage, including stories in the New York Times, New York Daily News and USA TODAY.
Schwartz says she’s encouraged by the attention the airlift received and she expects to be taking part in future rescue efforts in the future. “I plan to continue this work after I graduate. Animal cruelty is an emerging issue --- more and more people are becoming aware of what they eat and where their food comes from,” she says.
Warner’s campaign for a seat on the Dutchess County Legislature hasn’t drawn any national publicity. But he says he’s encouraged by the support he’s received from fellow Democrats – and other voters -- in his legislative district, which includes part of the Vassar campus. “I think we’re reaching voters – we’re putting together a good ground game,” he says.
While his youth may be viewed by some as a liability, he says, it can also be an asset. “One day I was going door to door, and woman asked me, ‘How old are you?’ When I told her I was 21, she told me, ‘Well you’ve got my vote.’ And she was registered as an independent, not a Democrat.”
Warner realizes he may be considered an outsider in the local community because he’s from Southbury, CT, but in addition to his time at Vassar during the academic year, he’s spent the past two summers in Poughkeepsie and has worked hard to educate himself about local issues. He says his opposition to a proposal before the county legislature to consider building a new, larger jail is resonating with many voters.
Warner says he knew running for office would be hard work, and it has been. “Truthfully, I’m spending more time campaigning than I am studying,” he says.
But whatever the outcome, Warner says taking part in the political system has been a gratifying experience. “If I meet 10 people while I’m campaigning who have given up on democracy and I turn them around and restore some of their faith in the system, then it will have been worth the effort, even if I lose,” he says.
Then he flashed a smile worthy of a young man looking for your vote.
“But I’m going to win.”