Two Princeton High School faculty members, Nipurna Shah and Paul Song, run a program for Asian-American students that has been a beacon of support both for current students and the program's alumni. The curriculum, which is modeled on AWARE (Asian Women's Action for Resilience and Empowerment) at Boston University, has been adapted to be both gender neutral and appropriate for high school students by Ms. Shah and Mr. Song.
“Our program stemmed from requests from the students,” said Ms. Shah, the college & career counselor at PHS. “Because I come from that part of the world, students felt comfortable talking to me about cultural differences and how to navigate the system. Then Paul Song came on board and now I have another perspective and a partner.”
“Ms. Shah is an Indian American woman and I am a Korean American man but our underlying cultural understanding is very similar," said Mr. Song, who is a guidance counselor at the high school.
Ms. Shah describes the program as a "psycho-educational counseling group," with about ten students participating each year.
Students, usually juniors and seniors, are recommended for the program by guidance counselors. “In the fall, during our meetings with colleagues, we ask them to compile a list of Asian-American students who would benefit from being a part of our group,” said Ms. Shah.
Mr. Song and Ms. Shah follow up with the students to determine who is interested. “Some of the topics are difficult and there can be raw and emotional discussions, so we need a certain level of maturity for students to be able to process the material we talk about. We have had some 10th graders, but 9th graders typically are not ready to handle this type of discussion.” At PHS, the curriculum covers cultural differences, family life, and identity formation.
AWARE was created by Hyeouk Chris Hahm, a professor at Boston University. "We explained to Dr. Hahm that we are public school and this is a passion project for the two of us,” said Ms. Shah. Dr. Hahm was impressed and agreed to provide lesson plans for free for a one-year pilot that started in 2017.
In 2018, Ms. Shah received a grant which allowed Dr. Hahm to come to Princeton to do a parent presentation and to have a session in person with the first group of students.
Mr. Song describes the students in the program as “traversing two different cultural backgrounds, their home background and being at an American high school.” The program gives them a safe space to talk about a wide spectrum of topics. “Our students are taking full advantage of utilizing the safe space to talk about things that are really taboo,” he said.
The program is open to all Asian Americans at PHS. “We have students from various Asian backgrounds and the students find their common ground,” said Mr. Song.
Recently Ms. Shah received an email from a PHS student who participated in the program and is now in college, thanking her and describing how the program opened doors and expanded his awareness. “I would not have joined several cultural organizations” without the AWARE program, he wrote, describing the experience as “formative.”
"One of the things I admire about Ms. Shah is that she allows students the space to express themselves and she also stays aligned with the curriculum,” said Mr. Song. “There is a method to everything.”
In recent days, however, there has a been a slight pause. “We have had to pause in terms of the curriculum flow to help students process what has been happening in our country. It has been very emotional, not only for the students but for us as adults,” said Mr. Song. “We have been fortunate to have this group and the space to share our true inner feelings and thoughts. It provides a sense of empowerment.”
Ms. Shah and Mr. Song said the challenges faced by Asian-American students at PHS was addressed in detail during the social justice shutdown sponsored by PHS students a few years ago “Students prepared a presentation where they shared personal accounts and discussed situations involving micro-aggressions,” said Ms. Shah. Students are currently discussing the logistics and scheduling for the next social justice shutdown day.
Asked if they had any advice for students who are trying to cope with the recent mass shooting in Atlanta where six Asian Americans were killed, Ms. Shah responded: “It is helpful to simply ask, how are you doing? It seems so simple. I hear that from my Asian-American students: Please ask us how we are doing.”
Said Mr. Song: “Whatever you do, do not try to make excuses for people who commit hate crimes.”
Below: Mr. Song and Ms. Shah at a recent "Stop Asian Hate" rally in Princeton.
- Princeton High School News