“What do you remember about who you were at Harlem Academy?” That was the thought-provoking question that opened up our recent Homecoming Symposium: Alumni Panel Discussion on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity of Opportunity. Four alumni returned to share their journeys from Harlem Academy to secondary school and college, delving into experiences that have shaped them along the way.
MiChelle Carpenter, dean of the class of 2020 at Grace Church School, led the conversation, prompting our alumni to reflect on who they were and who they had become.
Grappling with their Opportunity
As the conversation kicked off, one thing was clear: Harlem Academy was home for these alumni. “I came here in first grade and always felt nurtured,” recalled Javin Michael ’15, a senior at Riverdale Country Day. Zahir Barnes ’14, a freshman at Mercy College, agreed: “Harlem Academy felt like my second home.”
But along with the love and care came the realization that they were receiving an opportunity that many others would not.
Tara Eagan ’12, a junior at University of Rochester, distinctly remembered feeling guilty when she first came to Harlem Academy from another school. “It seemed as if my friends and I were on diverging paths,” she said. Some of her old friends accused her of “talking white.” Having grown up in Harlem, Tara had “a weird sense that I was abandoning where I came from, abandoning those who weren’t on the same path.”
Mariah Bell ’13, a sophomore at New York University, could relate. “You realize that you have a privilege,” she said about being able to attend Harlem Academy. “And you wish there was a way to give other people the same opportunities you have.”
Transitioning to Secondary School
All four alumni successfully leveraged their opportunity to attend selective secondary schools. Some found the transition relatively smooth, while others had more difficulty.
For Zahir, preparation was the key. “Going into high school I knew I had an advantage that other students like me might not have,” said Zahir, who attended Cristo Rey. “Being independent, responsible, and able to handle the workload – that’s what you gain at Harlem Academy. It made a big difference.”
Javin had a built-in support network when he stepped onto the Riverdale campus. “I found a sense of belonging because I had friends from Harlem Academy who were already students there,” he shared. He also had experience in a predominately white environment, having spent summers at a camp in Maine where he was one of very few campers of color. “Financially, we don’t have the same opportunities as some white children. So that camp experience helped prepare me for Riverdale, too,” said Javin.
Tara and Mariah had tougher adjustments in high school. Tara struggled her first year at Grace Church School. “The kids there were talking about going out to eat, going to SoulCycle classes after school; I couldn’t afford to do those things,” Tara said. “Because I didn’t have as much money as they did, I felt that I wasn’t as good academically. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work. It was that I felt that I didn’t belong.” Tara sought help from her advisors at Grace, her family, and Harlem Academy, overcame her insecurity and began to thrive. “By sophomore year, I felt good enough to be around those kids,” she said.
For Mariah, high school was a deeply personal eye-opener. “Going to Harlem Academy made me feel white back in my community, and going to Hotchkiss made me feel black,” she told the audience. “I didn’t understand what it meant to be black until I was surrounded by people who weren’t.”
On the Road to Success
As the evening wound down and our alumni reflected on who they are today, a common theme emerged. Despite the challenges they faced as students of color, these four young people believe they are on the right path. “I feel like I’m headed in the right direction,” said Javin. “I’m taking advantage of the opportunities I have, but it comes with the challenge of being an African-American male in the times we are in.”
Tara views herself much differently now than she did in the past. She knows that she belongs on a college campus. “I love how my life is going,” she said. “I didn’t know how many possibilities were out there for me. I learned that even if you have financial challenges, when people care for you good things can happen.”
Like Tara, Mariah came to see that her accomplishments merited the support she received. “I wasn’t very good at asking for things because it felt like begging,” admitted Mariah. “I didn’t see a lot of kids at Hotchkiss asking for anything because they already had it.” She eventually understood that her scholarship meant that she deserved to be there as much as anyone else. “I realized that I was getting a scholarship at Hotchkiss not because someone handed it to me, but because I earned it,” she said. “That made me feel powerful. Everything I have in my life is because I’ve worked hard.”
Today, as Tara, Mariah, and Zahir navigate college, and Javin sets his sights on an engineering career, they have already learned so much about who they are and what they can accomplish. They are proud of the paths they are traveling – and we’re proud that their paths started at Harlem Academy.
As Ms. Carpenter put it as the evening came to a close: “What happens to every student who has caring teachers, a rigorous education, and an opportunity for experience beyond books, is that he or she becomes a person who has something to offer the world. It’s not a white thing, or a black thing, or a brown thing. It’s a people thing. If you’re treated like a human being and educated like a person who has promise, you become a person who fulfills that promise.”
Thank you to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation, Ronald McDonald House Charities New York Tri-State Area, and ArborBridge for supporting our graduates as they prepare for college.