Six students are first-ever scholars chosen for new program honoring Princeton’s Paul Robeson


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Paul Robeson was not just an All-American athlete or an accomplished singer and actor.

He is well-known for being an advocate for civil rights.

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The history of his achievements and political activism will continue to be remembered through a new scholar program that has been launched in his name by The Paul Robeson House in Princeton.

The scholars will be recognized during the 2022 Paul Robeson Week Celebration that is taking place from April 4-9. An awards ceremony is set for April 9 at the Arts Council of Princeton from 10 a.m. to noon.

“The thought was that there are a lot of talented high school students and in the inaugural year we wanted to go to public schools first. We wanted people who could be representatives of the talents that Paul Robeson showed in his youth as a scholar, activist, artist and athlete,” said Denyse Leslie, board vice president and managing director.

The information and a flier for the scholar program was initially released on The Paul Robeson House website at the end of January. Then the application process closed on March 4 and the board identified six scholars for The Paul Robeson House’s first-ever selection of Robeson Scholars.

“This program did not take any time to convince people that it was a great idea. We knew there would be candidates that would step up an be that excellent,” Leslie said. “A Robeson scholar is a youngster fully engaged in their craft of learning and they are not only learning, but they are able to execute and are accomplished in one or several of the fields [athlete, artist and activist]. They put themselves out there, they are engaged in life and are leaders.”

The scholar program is also a way for The Paul Robeson House to connect with the high schools and make certain people continue to know about Paul Robeson.

There is not a number quota for the number of scholars that can be selected each year.

The program was the idea of Joy Barnes-Johnson, who is The Paul Robeson House board chair of programs, and designed to be a mentoring and leadership program similar to the Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars program.

“Most Jackie Robinson scholars are college level. For the Paul Robeson Scholar program this year we had 15 high school applicants nominated to become a Robeson scholar,” Barnes-Johnson said. “We opened up the nominating process for teacher nominations of students, athletic director’s nominations, advisor’s nominations, student self-nominations and parent nominations.”

She added that it was always their hope with the program that they would interest young people in Robeson and his time in American history.

Six scholars have been announced as Robeson Scholars for 2022 in the first year of the program.

“I am super excited to have scholars this year and hoped for the best. I work with high school students and I always say, Joy if you start they will come,” Barnes-Johnson said. “I hope we can grow the program to include other students from around the state. Here we are with Paul Robeson approaching his 125th year of his birth next year and his work and want to make sure his legacy stays in our institutional memory. He was a Renaissance man at an amazing time in American history.”

Public high school students could have been nominated from high schools in Princeton, Trenton, and New Brunswick, which are three areas Robeson spent time in during his childhood.

“Every applicant was asked to create a vision of social justice for their generation. They were asked to provide a vision of noteworthy program or idea that supports the legacy of Paul Robeson for social justice,” Barnes-Johnson added. “The second thing we asked them to do was provide evidence of their leadership and/or talent. Then we asked them to give us the name of an advisor or leader we could consult if we had questions.”

All six high school students selected to become 2022’s Robeson scholars are from Princeton High School (PHS).

They are seniors Joycelyn Brobbey (artist) and Mojisola Ayodele (athlete); junior Jealyn Vega-Ramos (activist); sophomore Christopher Foreman (athlete); and freshmen Asma Qureshi (activist) and Sheena Ash (artist).

“I am excited that four of the six students will return as high school students next year. Two students are graduating and we will mentor and keep watch over them from a distance as they go on to college, but four remain local,” Barnes-Johnson said. “We potentially have three years to watch them grow and evolve. All have described vision and programs that are going to be incredible as they lead them.”

Brobbey said she and her parents gave up everything, “I, my name; my parents, their jobs, house, and family members — to migrate to America in search of better opportunities.”

“I work with the BELE Network and the National Equity Project to co-design a more equitable and healing-centered school environment for all students,” she said. “I am confident that with the resilience and determination that I have gained through overcoming the challenges that I faced as a Black immigrant, I will succeed and create a better world for students of color everywhere in America.”

Ayodele has created and joined multiple resources for herself and peers to talk about their struggles whether it’s mental health, struggles with being a person of color (POC), or struggles with being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and etc.

She is a leader in her club C.A.R.E which stands for Cultural and Racial Equity and also a part of the Student Advisory Committee.

“My talent of being a great soccer player has affected my personality positively to help with my social justice work,” she said in her statement. “As a goalkeeper you need to be loud on the field, you are the eyes of the whole game and with that power comes great responsibility. I use this responsibility to be not just loud on the field, but also in my community when it comes to social justice issues.”

Vega-Ramos said she envisions a world with awareness for women, girls, transgender men, and non-binary people who menstruate and ending period stigma.

“Many people don’t have a complete or accurate understanding of menstruation as a natural biological process. Education on menstruation can build confidence, contribute to social solidarity and eliminate stigma,” she said. “Ending period stigma is what I envision for change. I’m making a difference in my community and developing a deeper understanding of how global problems can have partial solutions by simply starting at my school.”

Foreman added that athletes are more than players playing their sport, they are entertainers and influencers.

“In society, there always seems to be a wave of athletes pushing awareness toward causes. I aspire to be one of those athletes that not only get to fulfill my own dream but to help others fulfill their own dreams,” he said in his student vision excerpt.  “I could use my talents to address healthcare issues, racial inequality, and world peace.”

One of main hobbies and talents for Qureshi is art and graphic design. Qureshi loves to draw and design for fun and pleasure.

“We should all take the time to see what we can do to make change, whether it be big or small. Every human has a talent, find it and use it to make a difference…,” Qureshi said in vision statement.

Ash said she wants her voice to be the sunshine that comes from behind the clouds.

“Showing the beauty…that it is possible to overcome this wave [we are all trying to get over of pure dread],” Ash added. “I don’t want my voice to just promote justice, I want my voice to encourage equity, acceptance, feelings, all over the Earth because ultimately, we can do it. For all, we are in the same boat.”

Programs proposed by the scholars include using social consciousness to transform school curriculum, looking at how athleticism is used to build bridges across races and genders, and interfaith stability and making certain that people understand that being a refugee means that others allow space for people to find refuge and space and welcome them into the community.”

The scholars are being awarded the distinction of being a Robeson Scholar in three categories – artist, athlete, and activist. Two Robeson scholars were named in each of the three categories for 2022.

The Robeson Scholars will each be gifted $500 and also a mentor as the program continues to develop from its first-ever selection of Robeson scholars.

“We 100% hope we can expand throughout New Jersey and started in Princeton, Trenton, and New Brunswick, because he went to school in those communities and his family represented school students and school-aged children in Trenton, New Brunswick and Somerset,” Barnes-Johnson said. “We want people to recognize the leadership potential in our scholars and want our community stakeholders realize there is a lot to be learned from young people.”

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