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Independent Study Spurs Unlikely Meeting With Mandela

On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday and Mandela Day, celebrated worldwide, GothamSchools is collecting tales from New York City schools about the former president of South Africa. Rabih Ahmed is a college student who met Mandela in South Africa when she was a ninth-grader at Bronx Guild High School.

Since I was a child, my parents would refer to the president of South Africa as “The Great Nelson Mandela.” He was someone whose name was respected and greatly treasured in my home because he used his power to liberate his people and provide them with equal opportunity, especially in education. Nelson Mandela’s story inspired me as a high school student in New York City and continues to shape my experience as a student at SUNY New Paltz today.

In high school, I attended the Bronx Guild High School, which allows students to gain credits through independent projects. I needed a history credit and decided to focus on Nelson Mandela. Going in, I knew Mandela was important, but I wasn’t aware of his legacy and the powerful impact he had on this world. I studied his activism and his influence on the South African society. I learned about his struggle from the beginning of his journey till the post-Apartheid era.

I was motivated to study because I had gotten the opportunity to chose a topic that interested me.

My teacher at Bronx Guild, Amanda Colon-Smith, helped me with the project. It was through her that I found about The Nelson Mandela Legacy Writing Competition. It was administered by the Department of Education and the Nelson Mandela Foundation in honor of the first-ever Mandela Day on July 18, 2009. I decided to submit a poem on Mandela’s ideals, legacy, and impact on the world. This became one of the 12 winning submissions.

I traveled with the other winners to South Africa, where I had the opportunity to see in person the effects of what I had studied. At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, we saw a recreation of the public entrances that were divided during Apartheid. The right side of the entrance was for the Afrikaners, the white South Africans, and the left was for the blacks. This separation took me beyond the history books or my research paper because it was right in my face.

The trip also changed my outlook on education. I learned that learning hands-on is an incredible experience because you’re able to create connections between your research and the real world that you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. You’re able to use the experience you’re having to further your research.

After my trip to South Africa, I continued to learn about Mandela and other world leaders, and I looked for more opportunities to travel and continue learning from experience. I’ve traveled to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Brazil to learn more about social issues, particularly the lack of educational opportunities many people face.

A famous quote from Mandela that I heard at the Nelson Mandela Foundation headquarters in Johannesburg will always stick with me: “An army can liberate a country, but only a man can liberate himself.” To me, this quote is a constant reminder of the power of education and self-reflection.

Had I not traveled to South Africa during my freshman year of high school, I wouldn’t be the conscious and educated young adult that I am today.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.