“It was terrifying,” said Sophia Porter, the student member on the Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) Board of Education, remembering her first board meeting back in June. She wore a long dress. “I was staring at the floor thinking, ‘Don’t trip, don’t trip while you walk.’”
Porter, a senior at North East High School, was Junior Class President when the opportunity came along to represent Cecil County’s more than 15,000 students on the board.
Looking at the application paperwork, she was terrified, edging toward talking herself out of it. It was her mom, she said, who bolstered her confidence.
“My mom was like, ‘Do you realize what this means? You’re filling it out,’” Porter said. “She knows that I’m willing to talk to anybody. She knows that I’m not afraid to stand up for what I believe in.”
As the board’s student representative, she brings the experiences and opinions of her friends and peers to the board, offering perspectives from classrooms across the county that administrators and parents can consider in decisions that shape the district.
In the beginning, it was a lot of pressure.
“I was like, ‘I cannot mess this up,’” she said. “Sometimes I’m afraid I’m speaking out of context. When an angry parent writes in, ‘My student can’t focus,’ I’m afraid because I’m saying that it’s going great for my friends and my teachers are handling it so well.”
However, she has sought to get more comfortable asking questions, trusting herself to bring a valuable contribution to the board’s discussions. She said she’s gotten into the motion of the meetings — speaking in more recent meetings, she doesn’t shake with nerves like at that first meeting in June.
At first, she relied on the other board members.
“I would have them read over my report,” she said. “They’ve definitely been super helpful and supportive, helping me be comfortable in the position.”
Porter is no stranger to the spotlight — a longtime dancer, she recently got involved in musical theater. She’s worked with Rising Sun’s Street Lamp Productions, and said she’s ‘been told’ she’s a soprano.
Auditioning for music schools is a weird process to go through virtually, she said. It takes away some of the pressure of the live audition, but gives her the urge to watch, critique and re-record her performances.
She’s also considering academic programs in communications. She’s got ambition, though.
“Hollywood actress? Yes please,” she said. “That’s definitely the dream.”
As someone tuned in to social issues, she wants to use her platform for good.
“I have type one diabetes, and I would definitely speak out about that and bring awareness to it,” she said. Her message? Be sensitive. “It hurts a little bit when people are making jokes about getting diabetes from having a cupcake or something.”
Mental health advocacy is also important to her.
Taking care of herself and others is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. She also tries to get moving during the day, whether it’s doing some chores during a break or sneaking in some exercise, and makes time to nurture other hobbies — curating her Pinterest boards and selling paintings on the side (@sophsstudios on Instagram).
With a background in the arts, she brings those perspectives to her work in student council and on the board. No, she didn’t expect to be on the board amid a pandemic, and the intense discussions about reopening strategy add to the pressure of representing students. However, she said it’s important to remember that we’re all in it together.
“It’s definitely sad to have your senior year not with your friends every day, but you have to make time,” she said. “And it’s almost better, because you get to spend it with the people you love most.”
As much as she enjoys spending time at home with her parents and her younger brother, she’s excited to be back in school in-person, even just two days a week.
Amid the disruption of the pandemic, spotlighting the experiences of students across Cecil County has undoubtedly given Porter a unique role on the board — and have let her learn a lot.
“You have the football players who are just now getting to go back and play, and the artists who are at home learning from a teacher on a screen, the theater kids who are auditioning via email,” she said. “It’s just really cool to have all these different perspectives on what’s going on.”
Being open to new ideas, opinions and ways of thinking is crucial to representing the interests of so many students, she said, and just a good way to move through the world. ‘Be fearless’ is the mantra that guided Porter through the first half of her tenure on the board,
“Understand that people are coming from different areas of belief and thinking,” she says to her successor on the board, her fellow seniors eyeing graduation with uncertainty and everyone staring down their own challenges. “Be respectful, but also don’t be afraid.”