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Three high school students win Princeton Prize in Race Relations

By Patricia Allen

Princeton NJ -- The first winners of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, a pilot program launched in the metro-politan areas of Washington, D.C., and Boston, have been selected.

Jacqueline Akyea, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, and Zainep Mahmoud, a senior at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School in Washington, D.C., will share first-place honors and each will receive $500 at a ceremony hosted by alumni on Capitol Hill. Shan Shan Nie of Boston, a senior at Cohasset High School, will be presented with the $1,000 first-place award by the Alumni Association of New England. In addition, nine other Washington, D.C., students and 15 Boston area students will receive certificates of accomplishment.

The Princeton Prize in Race Relations is an awards program that recognizes high school students who are performing outstanding work in their schools or communities to advance the cause of race relations. The program was launched in 2003 as a pilot in the metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C., and Boston with the goal of expanding nationwide. Next year, it also will be offered in Atlanta, Houston and St. Louis.

Jacqueline Akyea

"Both Jacqueline and Zainep have produced outstanding projects and demonstrated an extraordinary level of personal commitment to promoting racial understanding and tolerance in their communities," said Patrice Pitts, co-chair of the prize committee in Washington and a 1979 graduate of the University. "The prize committee could not select one winner, because we felt they deserved equal recognition for their work."

Last year, Akyea created and organized a new program at her school called "Unity Day," which is now an annual event. The celebration gave students, staff and parents the opportunity to share their diverse cultures and experiences through song, dance, music and poetry. The event also included inspirational speeches from students who immigrated to the United States from other countries.

"Many of these students overcame perils and obstacles, and we wanted these individuals to tell their courageous stories," Akyea wrote in the essay she submitted as part of the award application. "This day encouraged and promoted tolerance and acceptance as it allowed people of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School community to learn about the cultural background and lives of others."

Zainep Mahmoud

In 2001, Mahmoud wrote a play titled "Unforgettable." The play, set shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, was inspired by news reports of harassment and assaults against Muslims and people of Arab and South Asian descent in the United States. It powerfully dramatized the tragic consequences that resulted from stereotyping and offered a sobering plea for racial and religious tolerance. "Unforgettable" was one of nine plays chosen by the Young Playwrights Theatre of Washington for performance throughout the Washington, D.C., area during 2002 and 2003. It was performed at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, the Canadian Embassy and at area schools, community centers and senior citizen centers.

"My hope in writing 'Unforgettable' was to educate the public about the ignorance of our actions as Americans toward innocent citizens after the horrible attack on our country," Mahmoud wrote in her essay. "I hope 'Unforgettable' inspired at least some people to make an intense evaluation of their own views and actions."

Shan Shan Nie

Nie, who immigrated to the United States from China in 2000, lives in the Dorchester neighborhood and attends Cohasset High School through the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity. She is a member of the Coalition of Asian Pacific American Youth, an organization that cultivates leadership development, community service and cultural awareness. Through that organization, Nie has helped organize workshops, such as one on art and activism, which demonstrated the power of artistic expression in addressing social justice issues. She has participated in several community discussions on diversity and racism and designed a flyer for the town of Cohasset's diversity day. Nie successfully has encouraged her teachers to supplement textbooks and other classroom assignments with more culturally diverse reading materials that represent non-Western points of view.

"I have come to value many of the challenges around racial and cultural diversity which I continue to face. They have heightened my awareness and increased my sense of purpose and efficacy," Nie wrote in her essay. "The challenges and the opportunities which they bring have fueled my commitment to be a change agent for the betterment of American society."

"We are greatly impressed by Shan Shan's commitment to expanding the cultural awareness of Cohasset residents in an effort to improve race relations in that community," said Fred Dashiell, a prize committee member in Boston and a 1976 graduate of the University. "She has exhibited a remarkable amount of dedication and courage in addressing this very sensitive issue."

In Washington, D.C., Congressman John Lewis, a 1987 Princeton honorary degree recipient and one of the nation's civil rights leaders, is scheduled to be the keynote speaker for the awards program honoring Washington area winners. Lewis is expected to discuss the state of race relations in America. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a member of the Princeton class of 1954 and a Princeton trustee, will deliver opening remarks to the students, their families and teachers. Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., who is a member of the Princeton class of 1970 and a trustee, is scheduled to present the prizes and certificates to the students.

Details for the Boston ceremony currently are being finalized.

Project entries were judged by the Princeton Prize Committee, which consists of University alumni, administrators and students.

For the names of all of the winners, visit <www.princeton.edu/pr/news/04/q2/0420-prize.htm>.