Cheyenne Varner, ’13, has always relied on writing for personal expression, but when she arrived at the University of Richmond, she learned how to use her words to effect social change.

Varner was introduced to the subject of human trafficking during her first year after a conversation with her friend Addie Rauschert, ’13, president of Students Stopping the Trafficking of People (SSTOP). She was so shocked that she began researching the topic and the effect on victims. Writing was another way for her to conceptualize the topic, and she composed a poem from the victim’s perspective that attempts to explain the personal impact while addressing the person responsible.

“Taking on awareness pieces has been different, but I think sometimes it’s more fulfilling than writing about my personal life,” she says.

When the planning committee for the University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration put out a call for contributing artists, Rauschert encouraged Varner to submit her poem.

She shared the piece with fellow members of SSTOP to get their response, and they quickly recognized the value of presenting it during the event, which focuses on social justice themes expressed through music and dance, poetry and spoken word, and the visual arts. The piece was selected, and theater major Mary Hampton Elam, ’14, agreed to read the poem aloud during the program.

“Being someone who’s used to having my writing hidden in a drawer somewhere in my house or in a diary, to have people actually see what I’ve been writing is pretty awesome,” Varner says. “The poem fits with MLK Day because it shows that there’s still a lot to be done and that the problems he was struggling for are still in existence. I hope that people will be kind of shocked by it and be motivated to do something, or at least learn more about the issue.”

While MLK Day may be her first public reading, the performance is just the beginning of Varner’s use of writing to impact social change. As an interdisciplinary studies major, she’s working on creating her own program of study — educational activism in arts — that combines elements of sociology, rhetoric and communication studies, education, and theater. She hopes to acquire skills that prepare her to work with a nonprofit organization and use creative writing to develop awareness campaigns.

“I met with the head of academic advising, and he led me through the process of choosing what majors I would want to incorporate and how to decide what classes to take,” she says. “I really want to learn more about how people take in and process information, what motivates them, and the best ways to send a message that will stick.”