Education that Makes a Difference: Rutgers Prep Students and Faculty attend the NAIS People of Color Conference

Rutgers Preparatory School Faculty and Administration work vigilantly to keep themselves abreast of best practices in education to not only better their students academically, but also socially and emotionally. As a community, we take immense pride in our diversity, and we continually engage in opportunities to learn from one another, celebrate our uniqueness, and further enhance a culturally-conscious mindset that will follow our students and extend beyond our campus boundaries.

Last fall, Leichena Bodie-Young, School Counselor for the Middle and Upper Schools, attended a four-day conference hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) entitled The People of Color Conference (PoCC). The PoCC’s mission is as follows, “The mission of the conference is to provide a space for leadership and professional development and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools. PoCC equips educators at every level, from teachers to trustees, with knowledge, skills, and experiences to improve and enhance the interracial, interethnic, and intercultural climate in their schools, as well as the attending academic, social-emotional, and workplace performance outcomes for students and adults alike.” To a Rutgers Prep educator, this is an extraordinary opportunity to learn and grow, but Mrs. Young found much more than self inspiration; she saw an invaluable experience for her Rutgers Prep students to take part in, to then impart their knowledge to their peers. 

With support from Head of School, Dr. Loy, Upper School Principal, Dr. Chodl, and Assistant Upper School Principal, Mrs. Bautista-Burke, Mrs. Young shared her experience with the Upper School Students, and challenged them to consider joining and making a difference in their school by participating in the next year’s PoCC. The conference is extremely demanding mentally and emotionally. Students bear witness to the difficulties others their own age have experienced due to their racial identity. They take a deep look into the nature of bias and define their own implicit biases. They share stories from their lives and discuss how they can alter certain perceptions and open closed minds to being more knowledgeable at their own schools.

Due to the conference’s incredible reputation for impacting students and schools, the NAIS holds a lottery each year for schools that are able to attend and bring a maximum of four students. There is a three-week turnaround, where students and schools need to make travel arrangements for the momentous event. The conference changes its location each year. In years past PoCC has been held in Seattle, St. Louis, and Baltimore; this year, due to the national pandemic, the conference was held virtually. As good fortune would have it, Rutgers Prep was chosen for the lottery for this year’s NAIS People of Color Conference made up of 1,000 students and 5,000 educators. The Upper School Administration with Mrs. Young and a panel of teachers worked together on the difficult task to sift through 26 applications and essays from the Rutgers Prep Upper School student population that were passionate about being a part of such an impactful initiative. The four students chosen were all upperclassmen and demonstrate strong leadership skills: Sontee Scott who identifies as African-American, Sarai Batallas who identifies as Latinx, Sofia Luly who identifies as Caribbean, and Alexandra Xu who identifies as Asian. 

The student portion of the People of Color Conference is called The Student Diversity Leadership Conference. Students are broken into different groups in order to ensure optimal exposure to diverse perspectives. Rutgers Prep students were put into various groups of different sizes throughout the four days: the largest, the East Coast Group, then they were divided into neighborhoods based on their state, and then lastly, into families, which is determined by location within your state. Students also participate in activities and conversations with Affinity Groups, based on how the students identify themselves. The main focus of Affinity Groups was to define each student’s role as a Diversity Leader at their school and discuss different approaches to making a difference for their individual communities. One student, Sontee Scott '21 reported that the model of varying groups was effective for her, as she was exposed to and learned from so many, making the experience a wonderful memory that she will carry with her. “During the conference, I was placed into different groups: my Neighborhood, my Family Group, my Affinity Group, and of course, the entire group composed of over 2100 people. 600 or so participants and I were a part of Neighborhood 3. It was with this group that I would spend the optional “Evenings of Fun.” My Family Group consisted of about 50 people and myself, and this is where I would check-in every morning. Finally, I was a part of the Black/ African American Affinity Group, which was made up of around 500 black students. I loved being broken up into these groups because I spent time with each group equally and they all served their own purpose. Through the Neighborhood group, I was able to have fun with a lot (but not too many) people and engage in Zoom chat conversations. Through my Family Group, I was able to really connect with that small group and get to know people on deeper levels. But most importantly, through my Affinity Group, I was able to embrace my culture; I was in an environment that I, unfortunately, don’t imagine I’ll ever be in again. Being around 500 black private school students was truly special and comforting for me, and I truly appreciate being able to be a part of these different groups.” The four days are not all work and no play for students; even virtually, there were dance parties, informal meet-and-greets, downtime to chat with new friends, and even a talent show!

Many students reported that the most inspiring and impactful portion of the conference came from listening to Keynote Speakers. “The Keynotes I enjoyed most were Dr. Glasgow’s speech about the cycle of oppression, Lyla June’s speech about her Native American heritage, and Dr. Bettina Love’s speech about connecting the intersections between racism and education. Dr. Glasgow explained that the cycle goes as follows: fear of difference, stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, institutional oppression, and then internalized oppression. While I knew all of these existed, I never connected the fact that one leads to another and that the final step helps perpetuate the cycle.” Students were offered the opportunity to sign up for workshops with Keynote speakers to further expand on what they were inspired by as they listened to presentations. Sontee Scott also remarked, “A workshop I greatly enjoyed was about creating an identity molecule. For this exercise, I drew different aspects of my identity (ie. race, religion, socioeconomic status) as atoms and linked them to form a molecule. I also wrote percentages for how negatively and how positively I viewed these facets of myself. Dr. Rodney Glasgow began the exercise by explaining his molecule, and it was great to see our differing perspectives. He brought up how aspects of his identity like age and ability level affect him negatively, which were identifiers I had never really paid attention to in myself. I shared my molecule with a partner, and though we identified similarly in many ways, it was enlightening to see that we emphasized different factors. This exercise was eye-opening and allowed me to really think about how I feel about my identifiers and how they are seen in the world.”

The experience prompted these students to truly observe the world around them, reflect on their own experiences, and view situations from the eyes of others. These students then commit to educating others on the importance of identifying and combating bias, encouraging acceptance and relentlessly pursuing the practice of compassion and empathy. “Being surrounded by people with shared backgrounds but also similar and very different experiences as me was inspiring. While I absorbed an abundance of information from others, my main takeaway was 'What can I do to make the change that I want to see within private schools?’ This conference allowed me to reflect on that, and through the knowledge that I acquired there and the conversations I had with others, I thought of a few answers: helping to change the narrative that follows minorities, requesting diversification of curriculums, demanding people recognize how multidimensional minorities are, and leading by example confidently in hopes to reassure younger students that they belong at these schools and to encourage them to be agents for change as well. I plan on bringing these goals with me as I finish the rest of my private high school experience, attend a private, predominantly-white college, and go on in life afterward.”

Students who experience the lighting of the eternal fire of inspiration at a young age take it with them to make an impact on the future of society. Mrs. Young and the other teachers at Rutgers Prep, who are also participants in this extraordinary conference, are grateful to have the support of the Rutgers Prep Administration in providing them as well as their students with this life-changing experience. The impact of the conference has extended into classrooms, collegial conversations, and student clubs. A longstanding club, known as the “Go Club” revamped itself and took more action due to inspiration found from the conference. Go Club is a student-led organization that focuses on cultural identity, and provides opportunities for the greater community to learn and experience the histories of different cultures, their traditions, and the valuable part each plays in our diverse society. Club member, Sontee Scott '21, states, “I believe education can definitely help people become more tolerant of and diminish unwarranted dislike for different groups.” Rutgers Prep plans to continue to bring a new set of students and educators each year to the NAIS People of Color Conference and the Student Diversity Leadership conference as yet another means of attaining the school’s mission to “inspire students to discover and pursue their passions, embrace intellectual curiosity and creativity, and lead with confidence”, ultimately making a positive difference for the future of society.