Newark teen recognized for tackling race issues

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on April 26, 2016

Student Shawn Ohazuruike became the first Newark resident to win the prestigious Princeton Prize in Race Relations, after helping shape the Diversity Among Peers program at Delbarton School.

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Shawn Ohazuruike figured it would take some time to settle in when he entered a private high school in Morristown four years ago.

Delbarton is mostly white and affluent, but he didn't expect students to ask if he had seen drug dealers in his Newark neighborhood, or if he had ever been stopped by police because he's black.

And he was certainly caught flat-footed when a black student threw him this racial curve: "I can't talk to white people.''

"That's when you knew there was a serious problem,''said Shawn, now 17.

As a result, the Minority Mentors Program was started four years ago by a former teacher who asked Shawn and other minority students to take part. The goal was simple – upperclassmen would be paired with freshman to help students become acclimated to Delbarton culture and to communicate that students of color want to be accepted.

Shawn jumped at the chance to champion the cause. What he didn't see coming were growing pains and, later, a prestigious prize on race relations when the scope of the program was expanded to address racial stereotypes and economic disparities.

The school administration understood that students of color were struggling to assimilate, but there were also preconceived racial undertones among the student body that Shawn pushed to address as the mentoring program evolved.

Initially, there was a backlash that Shawn didn't expect. He discovered that some students wouldn't participate in the mentoring program because its name left an impression that the group was was only for minorities.

Shawn and friends – Obinna Abalihi, 18; Zohaib Ahmad, 15; and Paulo Frazao, 17 – heard the daily lunchroom chatter. It wasn't good and they didn't like it.

"Why can't it be the majority mentoring program?'' said Zohaib, recalling one of the comments he overheard.

The stigma hurt. The program, they said, wasn't intended to exclude anyone, and they believed that they had to do something to change that.

So they regrouped during Shawn's junior year and fleshed out the mentoring program, calling it "Diversity Among Peers." Students gradually came around – a seismic shift, with the help of guidance from Jenna Nourie and Tony Negrin, who are diversity coordinators at the school.

The effort, with Shawn out front, was centered on inclusion and it sometimes made the Delbarton community uncomfortable. Many of the students, as well as teachers and administrators, had a part to play in this social justice movement that challenged students to talk about race. 

Shawn was determined to make a difference. He attended diversity workshops sponsored by the school last year and others he found on his own this year. He became so passionate about the issue that his work was recognized last week when he was named one of the recipients of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations.

"His application didn't nibble around the edges,'' said Richard Cammarieri, one of the committee judges for northern New Jersey. "It went right to the core about problems of race relations.''

And it made Shawn the first student from Newark to win the prize, which was established in 2003 by Princeton graduate Henry Von Kohorn. It recognizes high school students' work on race relations, making Shawn one of 26 top Princeton Prize recipients nationwide who will participate in a leadership symposium this weekend at Princeton. He also will receive $1,000.

What started as a school program to help 18 minority students adjust to private school has grown to involve nearly 100 students of all backgrounds, who have participated in workshops in which they dealt honestly with race and stereotypes.

Tim Guider, an 18-year-old senior, said white kids in his group spoke about when black kids discounted their opinions on race because they are not black."It seems as if our opinions didn't really matter or that it's kind of held a little lower because you're not a minority, so you shouldn't be a part of this conversation,'' he said.

Zohaib Ahmad, who is Muslim, told his classmates about the embarrassment he experienced at an airport when an employee stared at his passport longer than those of other passengers going through a checkpoint.

"Nobody else can feel that feeling I felt, just standing there under his glare,'' he said.

And for Arul Elango, 17, he always finds it amusing when some Delbarton students automatically think he's a vegetarian because he's from India.

"If they would see me eating a hamburger, they would say, 'You're going to eat that?'' he said.

Ah, yeah.

"I wasn't offended, but I could see where someone else would be.''

With those misconceptions and issues as a backdrop, Shawn had classmates addressed what many students call the "Delbarton bubble,'' an attitude among affluent peers who don't always recognize that that the poor are struggling economically.

"I think that's why (DAP) has been so effective,'' said Billy Schroeder, 17. "It's really trying to rid that division and bring people together.''

Much of this thinking changed when students attended school-sponsored retreats in the past two years in Camden. They spent several days working in soup kitchens and food pantries, and touring impoverished neighborhoods.

"I didn't expect it to be as bad as it actually was,'' said Andrew Papantonis, 17. "I was kind of blown away. The exposure opened my eyes.''

Shawn said the program has made students more cognizant of racial stereotypes, but there's more to be done to foster social growth at Delbarton.

"He's one of the best students that I've ever seen," said Nourie, the diversity coordinator.

"He took it that extra mile to find out how he could be the best leader.''

But in the fall, somebody else has to step up to continue the work. Shawn is bound for Dartmouth University, an Ivy League school at which he'll major in psychology.

And no, he didn't get in because he's black – another stereotype he faced.

He's graduating from Delbarton, the school he loves, with a well-earned 3.85 grade point average and a legacy of inclusion that won't be forgotten.

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