Nicole Sanders is planning a big move to Washington, D.C.
Having gained media attention last year after successfully suing her college for violating her First Amendment rights, Sanders was recently hand-picked as the incoming first-ever Director of Student Programs for The Atlas Society.
“They love that I sued my school for free speech,” she said, adding that the nonprofit chose her for her unique background in both student activism and outreach.
But it is not lost on Sanders that her new leadership role with Atlas, a group dedicated to fostering “the remarkable potential and power of the individual,” comes only a few years after an era in which she was struggling to find herself.
“At 18 I had a full head of dreads,” Sanders, now in her mid-20s, remembers of growing up in tiny Pekin, Illinois. “I wasn’t even enrolled in school. I didn’t even have my GED. I had dropped out of high school to travel. To go to music festivals. And I did that for two years. I was showering in McDonald’s bathrooms.”
To make ends meet, she was waitressing “at a little country restaurant. Small town. Country folks. A dollar or two tippers.” One of her ambitions at the time was to make it big as a pool shark, even though she was consistently “inconsistent.”
But that was fine with Sanders, who had always been comfortable literally taking a backseat in life.
“I think it comes from being the youngest of four children. They were all bigger than me. They were louder than me. And you know, the older ones always get to sit in the front seat. So I was shy,” she said. “Just growing up like that and never speaking up and always letting everybody else make decisions, that stuck with me.”
So what started Sanders on the path to becoming a leader in the campus liberty movement?
“I read Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. And it completely changed my life. What I really got out of her book was her philosophy: Living for yourself. Reason. Logic. Those things really appealed to me,” she said. “After I read it, I was no longer content doing a mediocre job. I realized, ‘OK. Well, nobody is going to do anything for me. If I want a life that I love, if I want to be successful, that’s all on me.’ So I took my GED, I enrolled in college.”
Sanders chose Blinn College, not too far from Houston, and after a semester, she started her own chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL).
It was on Sanders’ very first day as new president—and sole member—of her fledgling chapter that her mettle as a newly-minted activist was put to the test.
“I was on campus recruiting for the YAL chapter I just started, and I was talking about [a] concealed carry bill that was going through a [Texas state legislature] committee at the time, getting ready to be voted on in the House and the Senate. I lived in Texas, so of course there’s talk about guns. I had a sign that said ‘Defend Gun Rights on Campus,’ and I was just asking students, ‘Hey, how do you feel about guns on campus?’”
The right to bear arms had become a new passion for the Texas transplant. A friend in the Federal Marshal Service told her not to live alone without a gun for protection—a point Sanders took to heart when a young woman she was close to was raped.
“It really messed her up.” Sanders said. “I think all women who want to and know how should be able to defend themselves. You should be able to combat violence with violence.”
And Sanders wanted to share those beliefs with her fellow students. But Blinn administrators and campus police had other ideas about Sanders speaking out on the Second Amendment.
“[They] never came up to us as we were out recruiting. It was afterwards, when we came inside the Student Center. We were sitting down and just talking to each other about what happened, when the administration and three armed police officers approached us and said ‘Oh, you’re the ones we’re looking for.’”
The Blinn administrator told Sanders she would would also have to speak in a “free speech area” comprising less than 0.007 percent of the 62-acre Brenham campus. Furthermore, she would need “special permission” to talk about guns on campus, and she probably wouldn’t be able to get it. That didn’t sit right with Sanders, who knew she was entitled to speak out under the First Amendment.
“You’re told your whole life that you have these rights. They’re yours. You don’t really realize how important they are until you’re told you don’t have them.”
With the support of FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech (SUFS) Litigation Project, which defends the speech rights of students across the political and ideological spectrum, Sanders sued Blinn, challenging the school’s numerous speech-restrictive policies. The following year, Blinn and Sanders reached a settlement, with Blinn agreeing to change its unconstitutional policies.
(Sanders recently talked about the experience with FIRE-staffer Shelby Emmett at a Free Speech Rally at the University of Maryland. Check out the video interview below.)
Despite having to sue to affirm her constitutional rights, “I’m glad it happened,” Sanders said. “I’m glad we got the policy changes because it didn’t just affect me. It affected about 17,000 current students as well as every future student.”
It also made Sanders one of the more recognizable figures in the college liberty movement.
“I guess I always liked to be in the back. Never being noticed, never being in the front. Just kind of cruising through life. And the lawsuit put me in the forefront of everything.”
The formerly shy Sanders has stayed there and thrived.
Now living in California with two beloved cats, she’s working as a field representative for the Leadership Institute’s National Field Program, traveling to campuses in Central and Northern California helping students start their own campus groups.
“I go on campus with student groups and I help them table or do an activism event—anything they need help with to make their chapter successful,” Sanders said. “When I first started my YAL chapter, nobody told me how to do anything. I didn’t know how to table. I didn’t know anything about holding meetings. Literally nothing. It was all a learning experience. So now, being able to go help students who are just starting out and giving them the correct way to do things so they’re more confident, that’s what I really like. It’s a lot of fun.”
At the end of this month, Sanders will move to D.C., to begin building The Atlas Society’s student outreach program from the ground up.
“I’m really excited. It’s going to be a lot of work but I’m excited.”
As for the end game for Sanders, she’s says she’s on a path she loves, but also revels in the mystery of where exactly it might take her.
“I want to work in the liberty movement,” Sanders says. That’s a given. But she looks forward to one day combining the skills she’s using now with some other, more unexpected passions, like sewing.
“I love to sew. The love of my life, besides my kitty cats, is my sewing machine. So when I was going to festivals I wasn’t just some regular attendee.” Sanders recalls setting up her sewing machine next to the stage and making “different little hippie things” to sell.
“That’s how I kind of paid to eat.”
“So if I had a goal for myself, I would work for myself. I want to start a little business and I want to make liberty-inspired clothing.”
While products for her line are still being dreamed up, she’s settled on the perfect name for her future business: “Don’t Thread on Me.”
And she hasn’t ruled out other possibilities either, like running for public office.
“If I were to run, it would be for a school board or city council,” she said. “Something small where you could really make changes.”
From the music festival nomad, living on waitressing tips and bathing in fast food restaurant bathrooms, to an entrepreneurial mover-and-shaker with big future goals, Nicole Sanders reflects on where she has come from, and where she might yet go. And she can’t help but be reminded of her favorite author, Ayn Rand—and Rand’s own tumultuous beginnings escaping Communist Russia and facing initial criticism for the now-acclaimed Atlas Shrugged.
“She didn’t let it hold her back,” Sanders said. “One of her famous quotes is: ‘The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.’”