Each Year Princeton University bestows on 26 high school students from all over America it’s prestigious Princeton Prize in Race Relations. Never has a student from Newark received it. Shawn Ohazuruike entered the Delbarton School in Morristown with a predominately wealthy, white student population. And rather than keeping to himself, he started a social justice movement that’s challenged students from all backgrounds to talk about race. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: Thanks for being here Shawn. I know you’re a hurdler, you will be doing track and field in college.
Williams: Did you have any idea of the racial hurdles you were going to confront when you got to Delbarton?
Ohazuruike: I mean, being from Newark I knew I was going to encounter some cultural hurdles being from a certain urban area moving to a suburban area. It’s difficult for Newark students. I knew that going in there would be some hurdles I would have to overcome.
Williams: What surprised you the most?
Ohazuruike: The cultural shock. I can say this with a lot of other Newark students who also go to Delbarton who are from Essex County, that they also faced that hurdle. It’s a new environment, different people and it took me by surprise.
Williams: Did the kids shun you? Did you feel separated somehow?
Ohazuruike: No I didn’t feel separated. It was that I felt like one with the community, like the school said, but there were subtle micro-aggressions that students would make but it wasn’t on purpose. It was all by accident.
Williams: It was just embedded in their up bringing right?
Ohazuruike: Yeah it was just embedded in their up bringing.
Williams: So you got caught in this Minority Mentorship Program. How did that happen? And then you found that you had to change the name of it, right?
Ohazuruike: When we came into Delbarton, another teacher and a couple of students from Newark realized there was an issue with students in terms of integrating into the school. So, what we did, along with the administration, is we decided to start a program called the Minority Mentorship Program. With that there were seniors and juniors who were paired with freshman and sophomores. The idea was to help the younger student acclimate to the environment but what occurred was it almost seemed as if the program was exclusive, we were a separate entity to the student body and that’s not what we wanted. We wanted them to feel included in the student body and make us all one.
Williams: So you had to get rid of the word minority. You changed it to…?
Ohazuruike: We changed the name of the group to the Diversity Among Peers or Diversity Among People Program. The initiative was to make the program more inclusive. So we changed our mission statement in order to make it more inclusive. That was the idea behind it. We’ve been working towards our goal of making the student body more inclusive, acknowledging the problems of both the students from Newark and Morristown and relating to each other with these problems and that’s the overall goal.
Williams: And these are not always comfortable conversations. Why do you think that is?
Ohazuruike: Of course because most of the unconscious bias is swept under the rug, you don’t talk about it. Sadly, when you do talk about it or when we don’t talk about it long enough, it sort of becomes something big.
Williams: And you get your dukes up.
Ohazuruike: Exactly and that’s what we want to avoid. So when we talk about the different problems that different cultures, races and genders have with each other, we can find a common ground and everyone can feel welcomed into the environment.
Williams: How much does the language we use, the words we use, infringe on our ability to understand each other?
Ohazuruike: Well I can speak from a Newark perspective. So, coming from Newark you have your own, let’s say it this way, swag. You have the way you talk to people and coming from Newark and moving to a suburban area, it’s almost as if when you go there you’re speaking a different language. You try to adjust to the language, it is a barrier and it’s a barrier we can overcome when we all understand each other and where we are all coming from. If I can speak this, if I understand that I’m speaking because I’m from Newark, I’m from the urban area, this is how I relate to people and with this initiative we can help people understand that and we can come together and be like, hey you speak this certain way, I speak this certain way and it’s like, it’s a bonding area we can relate on.
Williams: What does having the Princeton Prize now mean to you?
Ohazuruike: It means that he Diversity Among People Program can be a little bit more widespread. We want to let people know that the program exists and it’s a step forward for Delbarton. Because this is all school based and we want people to know that we are a great school but things like the Princeton Prize is not for me, it’s showing the progress of Delbarton as a whole. So we can become an even greater school by having this prize. It means a lot to me and to the school.
Williams: Tell me where you are 10 years from now. You’ve finished with Dartmouth with straight A’s. Now what?
Ohazuruike: Hopefully, I’m thinking, I haven’t made my decision yet but psychology and neurosciences is where I want to go and I still want to do social justice work outside of those. I was actually talking on the phone with somebody this morning and they suggested that I do law, so I am like wait a minute, I am just trying to find my way around. I still want to be involved with social justice work. There are a lot of clubs at Dartmouth that I can be involved with and maybe I can make my own club that can have the same initiative as the one that we have at Delbarton.
Williams: I can’t wait to see you soar. Thank you very much Shawn.
Ohazuruike: Thank you, thank you very much for having me.