SESP Freshman Wins One Book Essay Prize

SESP Freshman Wins One Book Essay Prize

Jonathan Sun(L-R: One Book Faculty Chair Gary Cadava, Jonathan Sun, Danielle Allen)

School of Education and Social Policy freshman Jonathan Sun won the $500 One Book One Northwestern Essay Award for his piece “Disparate and Equal,” which explores a sobering moment during high school when he began to rethink the meaning of “equality.”   

The essay contest was held in conjunction with Northwestern University’s One Book One Northwestern program, an all-campus read that includes related programming and events throughout the school year.

This year’s One Book selection, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by political philosopher and best-selling author Danielle Allen, sparked the essay question, “When have you stood for or against equality?”

Sun's entry was one of 23 submissions from all six undergraduate schools. For the first time, the international students also submitted essays. 

Sun's stood out because he took a fresh approach to the prompt and because his essay was "gracefully written and engaging," said One Book committee member Jeanne Herrick, assistant professor of instruction at the Weinberg College of Arts and Science. "He looked at the inherent conflict between equality and the pressure to stand out and be different than others and integrated this discussion with points he made about Allen's book," Herrick said.

In his essay, Sun described how he grew up equating “equality” with “mediocrity,” preferring to excel individually and set himself apart from his peers. But during the high school election season, Sun witnessed a colleague verbally berating another student in a closed-door meeting. Like the others, he said nothing.

“Through the entire fifteen-minute tirade, a surrealistic, inquisition-like experience, not a single person present dared to speak up, and I knew absolutely then that any perception of myself as morally outstanding was misguided,” he wrote.

“I was forced to admit that I was no different from (the others) because I did not have the courage to hold a friend accountable when he acted out against a stranger. By my apathy in a decidedly unjust situation, I stood that day against equality.”

Humbled by the experience, Sun wrestled with how to make amends. He now believes that “equality is a more difficult concept than liberty for the human mind to grasp, as we are cognitively egocentric. It is hard enough to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but even more difficult to realize that we fit in them, too. But equality is necessary because it lies at the root of all human understanding.”

Sun, who received the award during Allen’s keynote speech, said he is still trying to reconcile a desire to stand out while acknowledging that he is not better than anyone else.

“But coming to Northwestern has been really helpful with that,” he said. “We all make subconscious judgments when we meet those we are not familiar with, and being able to ‘reason’ my way out of prejudice by recognizing that everyone here is here for a reason is something powerful.”

Sun said he also feels inspired by his SESP classmates, who share his vision for a better world. “What struck me (during Wildcat Welcome) was that it seemed like everyone at SESP was doing something really cool and that it was something that they really, deeply cared about,” he said.

“I still have a childish sense of wanting to ‘change the world,’” Sun said. “I feel like that's something everyone at SESP wants, too.” 

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/24/17