The Firefighter Christopher Santora Educational Scholarship Fund Website

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Heena Kamdar:
2005 Winner
Bayside High School

Heena Kamdar

Winning Essay

It began on a trip to Mumbai, four summers ago. After residing in the home my father grew up in, I began to appreciate things most of us take for granted everyday: water, a bathroom, and a bedroom, among other things. My father being one of six family members, lived in a 10’ x 10’ one room flat, with a communal bathroom (shared by everyone on the ground level). My grandfather, (dad’s dad), an accountant, worked from 10 a.m. – 12 a.m. yet, was still unable to provide for his family. My father took on various jobs (train ticket checker, door–to–door clothing seller, worker at paper clip production factory shoe shiner, just to bring chappati (Indian bread) and vegetables to the table. Despite working around the clock, he was poor; corrupt bosses appropriated the wages. Out of fear of being fired, my father never spoke out against this ugly practice.

In India, because you are locked into a social caste, your potential is stunted. Even if you do work to the utmost of your ability, even working day and night in a factory manufacturing paper clips or shoes, there is always a group of corrupt officials just waiting to take your earnings. Many times, the rich just bribe others to gain high positions in office.

As most people hear, “America is the land of opportunity” – so did my dad. He and my mom came to the U.S. in hopes of starting anew. They began their own business, and today, have everything, and much more than they ever imagined. The phrase “hard work pays off” is valid (in America, not India) in that, your input is proportional to the output yielded. With my parents’ entrance into the “land of opportunity,” they discovered the true meaning of democracy.

Abraham Lincoln once defined Democracy as being “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” However, is Democracy something tangible? Or is it simply some whimsical ideal? In line with this definition, no current nation–state (including the USA) qualifies as a pure Democracy, although, Iceland comes very close to this archetype, due to its small, homogenous population. Athens is usually referred to as the only true democracy, but the franchise was limited to male citizens of the mercantile and trades classes – a sub–population, nil in comparison to the larger percentage of slaves, who had no rights at all. That is not Democracy, but a limited oligarchy. Additionally, if people are at the heart of a democratic society, why are most people apathetic about elections? In a nation of 295,566,562 people (U.S.A.–dated 2/28/05), distinct and multi–cultural, although we cannot revert to organizing New England Town Meetings (a time when America could be considered a quasi–democratic society) in which everyone had an equal say on how the town was run (except women), we, as citizens, can participate in the life of our society – adding voices to public debates, electing representatives, and accepting the need for tolerance and compromise in public life. The latter is what forms the pedestal of a Democratic society.

Day after day, the public expresses dissent regarding political issues: same–sex marriages, abortion, America’s intervention in Middle East affairs, America’s constant role as the “policeman of the world,” among many others. The beauty of these conflicts is that there is no clear–cut “right” and “wrong” answer. People have differing interpretations of democratic rights and social priorities based on philosophy, religion, and/or past experiences. Individuals in a democratic society must be willing, to tolerate each other’s differences, recognize the other sides’ stance. The various sides to a dispute, whether in a local neighborhood or national parliament, can then meet in a spirit of compromise and seek a specific solution that builds on the general principle of majority rule and minority rights. Hence, our system of “demos and majos – kratos” – power of the people and majority, respectively.

To me democracy is having the right to voice an opinion, to freely pursue one’s interests, to exercise one’s rights, and to take responsibility for one’s life. We decide where we will work, what kind of work we will do, where we will live, whether to join a political party, what to read, and so on. We make personal decisions. If an artist wants to express himself through art, no one can censor his work. That artist will not be some servant/employee of the state. The chief contribution of a democracy to art is freedom – to invent, to test, and to delve into the world of the human mind–set. Additionally, education is a top priority. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never shall be.”

The pillars of democracy rest on several civic responsibilities. Each and every citizen should possess “communication skills” (the ability to speak, listen, read, write, and view effectively), “affective skills” (the ability to connect human emotions with action, knowledge, and values), and the “skills for living in a democracy.” The latter would include critical thinking, decision making, working together to yield meaning, individual responsibility and involvement with others. The former can be achieved through dialogue, inquiry, advocacy and suspending judgment. If one puts his/her views to the side for just a second, and listens to the other parties’ words or does research on the subject matter, one’s fight for the cause will become stronger. Since democracy creates a vibrant society in which the individuals play a deciding role in its governance, critical thinking and decision–making are two crucial characteristics of the members of a democratic society.

Unlike Democracy, in a totalitarian regime, the government encourages a culture of passivity and apathy. The regime molds individuals to become an obedient and docile citizenry. Totalitarian governments do not tolerate activities by individuals or groups such as labor unions that are not directed by the state’s goals. Totalitarian regimes maintain themselves in power though secret police, propaganda disseminated through the media, the elimination of open criticism of the regime, and use of terror tactics. Internal and external threats are created to foster unity through fear.

In communistic states, egalitarianism is stressed. Although Democracy also stresses equality, the latter focuses on equality of people before the law; the former stresses equality of people in all aspects of life. In communism, all property is owned by the community as a whole, and all people have equal social and economic status. There is no state, no private property and no social classes. Wage labor is eliminated and workers get their “piece of the pie” instead. Perhaps the best known principle of a communist society is “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

As a teen, born and brought up in America, I must say that America has given me every opportunity. Being a citizen of a country that is “heir to the tradition of liberty, defender of the freedom, the conscience and the dignity of every person” (President Bush), makes me proud. 911 was a day that we didn’t succumb to Al Queada, but rather, we supported each other to the fullest. Many lost their lives, loved ones, and businesses; however, everyone joined together, and America became more united than ever. After 911, when my mother became unemployed, and my father was forced to close his business for over two months (because it was across from the trade center) and thereafter suffered a huge business loss, there were many charities to help us financially. The help we received allowed my brother to attend his first–choice college and helped my parents with daily expenses. America has given my family and me more that I could ever have dreamed of. I hope the future citizenry will uphold the tenets of a democracy as well as our forefathers have done.


We would like to wish Heena Kamdar the best of luck moving on to Cornell University. Congratulations!

My name is Heena Kamdar and I am a graduate of Bayside High School. I will be attending Cornell University in the fall semester of my freshmen year. I am set on majoring in biological sciences, and thereafter, pursuing a career in the medical or pharmaceutical field. Several events that have made me intent on pursuing a health–oriented career include: being assigned to the respiratory care unit of the New York Hospital, listening to my father talk of the horror he saw on 9/11, while running across the Brooklyn Bridge, helping in the Walter Kanner Foundation during Christmas at Terrace on the Park, and organizing sales at Bayside High School to aid in Tsunami relief efforts. The investigative Science Symposium and the Expo fair at the New York Academy of Sciences, made me further delve into the “hard–core” math–based science–chemistry.

Dance has also had an enduring influence on my life since the age of 5. This art of expression has given me a sense of relief, tradition and concentration. These aspects fuse to express stories, brought down through time. These experiences along with my love to folk dance are what shaped me, as I am, today.

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