Princeton Prize Honors Local Students
For the past two years, Farmington students have taken regional honors for their work in diversity.
Whenever anyone starts bad-mouthing Twitter, I start telling stories about people such as Tara Michener, a diveristy champion I met through the social networking site.
Michener is a Livonia author and consultant who has introduced me to some amazing people. She's married to Jason, whom she calls her "hubistrator" because he illustrates her books.
And Jason happens to have a different skin color than she does.
This is the 21st century; you wouldn't think that would be a problem. But as Tara Michener explained at Sunday's Princeton Prize in Race Relations event, which honored two local teens, some people thought their marriage was a bad idea.
"We actually had people who told us we shouldn't be together because of our skin tones," she said.
Now Tara and Jason Michener are vocal advocates for improving relationships among people of different races. Their work in diversity includes co-chairing the Michigan Princeton Prize selection committee. Jason Michener is a Princeton University alumnus.
This year and last year, I was invited to attend the awards event, along with students, their parents and mentors. And both years, the big prize winners came from Farmington Public Schools.
Last year, Shirisha Thota was honored for her leadership and proactive attitude toward fostering programs and dialogues about race relations at Farmington High School, where she's a senior this year. I knew Thota as a former junior co-host of SciEngiMathePloration, a public-access cable television show my husband co-produces. Seeing her at the Bonefish Grill in Novi, the site of the awards, was a pleasant surprise.
The same thing happened this year, when Aashka Soni walked across the room and gave me a hug. The North Farmington High senior earned the top prize for her work with the University of Michigan Youth Dialogues on Diversity class, which originated with North Farmington student Erika Vivyan's participation in the University of Michigan School of Social Work's "Summer Youth Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity in Metropolitan Detroit."
With community and university support, Vivyan brought the program to Farmington Public Schools as an extracurricular activity in 2008, and Soni was among those involved. She helped Vivyan write the curriculum for the very first Youth Dialogues on Diversity Leadership course, and she also co-wrote and co-taught the class this year. Students from all three Farmington high schools participated.
Next year, it will be a required part of the district's new International Baccalaureate program.
"By the end of next year, we will have put 200 students through the curriculum," Soni said. "This year, we kicked off 11 action projects."
The projects range from setting up a self-defense class for teen girls to organizing a "mix it up" day, which got students to sit with someone other than their "usual crowd" at lunch.
As the top prize winner, Soni received a $1,000 cash award and will travel to New Jersey in May to attend a symposium at Princeton and share ideas with honorees from around the country.
Farmington High student Ashna Khanna's work with Youth Policy Leaders of Detroit, an offshoot of U-M's Youth Dialogues on Diversity program, was honored Sunday with a Certificate of Accomplishment. Khanna's Student Diversity Learning Initiative, supported by local school and city officials, aims to make diversity learning part of every school's curriculum.
Those kinds of outreach programs are exactly what the Princeton Prize is all about, Tara Michener said.
"You're teaching us how to relate to one another, how to speak to one another," she said.
Kate Thirolf, an Ann Arbor resident and member of the Michigan committee, said the Princeton Prize has been in this area for three years. She encouraged nominations for next year's award.
"This is not a grade-based program. It's community-based outreach," she said. "It's about changing race relations in Michigan."
And for two of the three years Michigan has awarded a Princeton Prize, top honors have gone to students right here among us.
How cool is that?