One Square Mile Johnston: Students Reflect Country's Divide Over Trump

Feb 2, 2017

All this week we’re hearing stories from Johnston, the Rhode Island town that flipped the most dramatically from blue to red in the presidential election. 

Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison stopped by the cafeteria at Johnston High School to find out what students think of President Donald Trump. 

Over Tater Tots and chocolate milk, students expressed a range of views about this controversial president.

Twins Maria and Sophia Rengigas, 18, remain uncertain about Trump.

"I'm not getting good vibes," said Maria. "We'll see how it goes," added her sister Sophia.

Asked what they would like the president to know about their community, bullying is the first thing that comes to mind.

"Bullying is a big issue," said Maria. "I think if they try to focus more on that, and come together and not spread everyone apart, that would make this country a lot better -- knowing that everyone's safe here." 

"Create a cross-wide curriculum," suggested 16-year-old Ivan Fernandez, a sophomore, who fears colleges will not give him the same consideration they give students from elite private schools. To solve this problem, he would advocate for a national curriculum.

"That way the colleges will treat us all equally."

Fernandez calls President Trump a "major change" from former President Barack Obama, but says he hopes Trump will be more effective with the help of a Republican-controlled Congress.

"I do not like him or hate him," said Fernandez. "I think with him, we just have to support him."

Johnston voters preferred Trump to Democrat Hillary Clinton by a 14-point margin, although most residents of this town are registered Democrats. When Johnston High School held a mock election last fall, Fernandez says Trump was the clear winner.

But that result was disappointing to students like Noor Abaherah, a senior wearing a turquoise shirt and a dark blue head scarf and sitting at a table with a group of friends.

"I feel like he's scaring people even more," said Abahera, who turns 18 this month and is Muslim. "I mean Muslims are already not portrayed the way they should be in the media. I think it brings more attention when I go out now."

Abahera says she hopes people who see her head scarf and have questions will ask her about it.

"I'm not nervous, I'm proud of it," she said.

"It wasn't very surprising for Johnston to have voted for Donald Trump," said 15-year-old Maikou Kue, a sophomore, who observes that many Johnston residents share values Trump highlighted on the campaign trail.

"That those who work hard should be able to have the opportunity to get more revenue and more income into their lives," said Kue. "And that sometimes there are people who have less honest work, who should be removed."

Kue, who is Asian-American, does have concerns about Trump's views on immigration and some of his comments about women.

"I think that what Donald Trump says about women and minorities is very radical," but she adds, "with him as the leader of our country, we can be able to do great things, if he were to change his views on women and minorities -- because they need recognition in their lives too."

One of Kue's lunch companions, 16-year-old Zachary Zambarano, says people should give the new president a chance.

"If people just think of these negative comments about Donald Trump, I think they have really the wrong image of what he's trying to do for the country."

Zambarano acknowledges that some of Trump's comments have been "controversial," but he has high hopes for the new administration.

"The way he wants to improve the country and how he wants to keep us growing economically and socially, I think he has some really good points," Zambarano said.

A few tables away from Kue and Zambarano, senior Naomi Arevalo has few kind words for Trump.

"He's very -- what's a nice word? He's very arrogant."

Arevalo, who will soon celebrate her 18th Birthday, mostly avoids conversations about her political views. But she is troubled by the strong support for Trump in her town.

"It bothers me a lot because we live amongst all these people, and when he did win the election, there were all these people gloating about it, not knowing how other people felt about it, how the minorities felt about it."

Arevalo is sympathetic to protesters concerned about immigrants' rights and the plight of refugees, as well as Trump's negative comments about Mexicans and Muslims.

"I just hope that his tactics and his strategies do end up making the United States a better place," Arevalo said. "But I doubt it."