Ellie Sosa was having trouble coming up with a topic for her National History Day project.
The 7th grade student from Amelia Earhart Middle School in the Riverside Unified School District had participated in the student competition since she was in the 4th grade. She had previously advanced to the state National History Day competition on two separate occasions.
As she researched topics that fit the theme of “Breaking Barriers in History”, she came across the onset of the AIDS epidemic from the 1980’s.
“I didn’t want to focus on the broad story of the epidemic. But, as I dove into it, I found out about Ryan White. His story was super interesting to me,” Ellie said. “I figured that a lot of people in my generation wouldn’t even know about it and that if I could share it, they could see how it impacted our lives now.”
Ellie started writing for her project in September of 2019 but didn’t start gathering her interviews until February of 2020. As she progressed to the county and state competitions, she learned more about how Ryan’s story changed history and decided to incorporate more interviews to strengthen her documentary.
“History is important because we can learn from it and fix our mistakes. Secondly, it helps us realize that what we’ve overcome in the past can show that if we come together and persevere, we can show strong we are as a nation.”
Although editing her film has taken the most time, Ellie shared that the most difficult part was finding photos and keeping the film under 10 minutes.
Three of Ellie’s teachers provided suggestions that helped along the way: History teacher, Ronald Otis, English/language arts teacher, Susan Priebe, and the school’s National History Day coordinator, Kent Byer.
One creative scene brought to life an audio exchange between reporters and a press secretary from the Reagan administration.
“At the beginning, I was having trouble finding pictures to show the government response, so I had to go deeper under the surface,” Ellie said. “That scene added a lot to the project because it showed how AIDS seemed like a joke to them.”
Ellie was surprised to learn how many people looked at AIDS as strictly a disease affecting the gay community and that the government’s response seemed to reinforce that belief. While she was hearing about the coronavirus in early 2020, she started to realize some similarities to responses to the AIDS epidemic.
“It really showed me how we’re living in history and that things that happened in the 80’s could happen again but with a different disease,” Ellie said. “It seems like we have learned from history as people seem to be more willing to help rather than discriminate and push others away in fear.”
Another big idea that Ellie learned was the power of perseverance that Ryan White exhibited that she hopes people will take away as a lesson after watching her film.
“I hope that people realize how much of an impact one person can make if they persevere. Even if they are young or old, they can change lives,” Ellie said. “Even if that wasn’t their intention and they were just trying to fight for themselves, it can have a chain reaction and impact the whole world.”
In her documentary, Ellie details how Ryan was forced to change schools due to the discrimination. In preparation for arriving at his new school, teachers and administrators learned more about the disease, trained employees, and welcomed Ryan into their community.
“One reason I emphasized that part was that at his old school, their opinions were exactly like what the media said and they didn’t want to learn,” Ellie said. “When we learn about something that we don’t know about, it can help change our perspective and save people from being discriminated against. If we educate ourselves, it can change people’s lives.”