See the full transcript of the interview here
You may not like them, but you cannot ignore them. With relentless activism and largescale speaker events over the last semester, Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Virginia continues to be the leading voice of the conservative student body. All of this despite massive counterattacks from the leftist groups, which seem to be predominant in UVA’s campus culture. “I think there still is space for conservative ideas in the academic discourse. But these days, you have to be brave to even express that you are a conservative,” says YAF Chairman Nickolaus Cabrera.
The Class of 2023 Astronomy major knows from personal experience what it means to take heat for standing up for one’s beliefs. Conservatism, says Nick, came more or less naturally to him. Growing up in a Roman Catholic household with an immigrant background has shaped his outlook on core American values. The keenly debated American Dream is deeply engrained in Nick’s worldview: “My father immigrated from Puerto Rico to New York. He barely finished high school and had no college degree – he chose trade school instead. Then he met my mom, who also didn’t go to college. And now they’re living so comfortably. To me, this is what America is all about: being able to work your way up.”
As chairman, Nick is the head behind YAF’s many activism campaigns. A small, grassroots organization in a rather hostile environment, the club still delivers its message to the masses successfully. Nick is particularly proud of YAF at UVA continuing its work despite the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. Whether you speak to him or any regular club member, their conviction and dedication to conservative causes are clear. A semester of activism at YAF can take different forms and cover a wide array of topics. Some are more general, while others respond to issues facing the university community directly. With its Free Speech Ball, the club promoted freedom of expression and intellectual diversity among the students. A Back the Blue rally expressed support for the University Police Department amidst campaigns for its defunding. Other campaigns aim at preserving UVA’s very own legacy.
One would expect great American values such as liberty, free speech, and the individual pursuit of happiness to be fundamentally rooted in the spirit of the University of Virginia. Yet it seems like large portions of students and lecturers are appalled rather than inspired by this place’s deep history. Nick Cabrera takes particular offense in the ahistorical dismissal of UVA’s beloved founder, Thomas Jefferson. “To be preaching that Thomas Jefferson is an evil person is just harmful,” he argues. Instead, the university and its students should embrace Mr. Jefferson’s legacy. Both Nick and YAF believe that the UVA community should preserve the statue of its founder, which, til now, proudly stands in front of the Rotunda.
Its fight for the university’s Jeffersonian heritage has led to one of the club’s largest speaker events yet. Last October, YAF hosted “In Defense of Mr. Jefferson,” a live lecture and discussion featuring Congressman Chip Roy (R., Texas) and National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry. Both being UVA alumni, they aimed to draw a more complex picture of Thomas Jefferson than the one offered by the blind activism of the progressive outrage mob. To this day, Nick looks back fondly on this event. Equally as important was the lecture “Preserving American Tradition” with Mia Love. In this very timely talk, the first black Republican Congresswoman advised the UVA community how to stand up for America’s foundational principles in a cultural climate defined by Critical Race Theory and toxic gender ideology. Being a proponent of diversity of ideas, these interactive live-audience events are crucial to Nick. Only free and open discourse, he argues, enables us to have truly productive political and cultural discussions: “By bringing on all these different speakers, we try to get the public to listen to some alternative ideas – even if they don’t want to hear them.”
The latter part is a particular obstacle. From his own experience as YAF chairman and member of the Student Council, Nick Cabrera knows that the diversity of thought he values so much, sadly, is at risk at the University of Virginia. When asked if he ever had to deal with cancel culture on grounds, Nick can name several instances from the top of his head: “When we paint Beta Bridge, it gets defaced in less than an hour. We get up to a thousand hate comments on our Instagram posts. It’s these kinds of things that try to silence the conservative voices.” But it does not stop there. Even personal attacks are not off-limits to some on the other side of the political aisle. “We do get threats,” Nick affirms. “Even our families get threats. These are things that YAF members have experienced in the past and continue to experience.”
Despite all the controversy, YAF remains persistent. To Nick, it is this kind of pressure that proves why it is important for conservative students to be open and honest about their beliefs. With its activism, YAF especially wants to encourage those who are afraid to speak up. “I really hate that phrase ‘closet conservative’ because it shouldn’t be that way,” says Nick, assuring that he personally knows many fellow students who are sympathetic to conservative causes but are intimidated by the current political climate at the university. When you listen to the whispers, you can hear a lot of Gen Z alienated by the cultural mainstream of Critical Race Theory, gender ideology, and intellectual conformity. To those, YAF continues to give a voice; loud, unapologetic, and – as Nick Cabrera is convinced – here to stay.
Asked whether he had a general message to the UVA community, however, Nick delivered one of reconciliation and understanding. Again, he looks to Thomas Jefferson for inspiration: “If I had one message for the University of Virginia at large, it would be to keep Jefferson’s values in mind. Thomas Jefferson created this institution to revitalize what it means to be a college student. So, let’s use our college years to find ourselves, find what our academic interests and our political beliefs are, and also to be more accepting of different ideas.”