By: Shubham Saharan
It’s rare to find a group of people willing to talk about government and politics at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. What’s even more rare is finding a group of teenagers eager to do so. But when I walked in to our New Jersey Leadership Program Summer Fellowship Orientation this past Saturday morning, bleary-eyed and anxious, that’s exactly what I encountered.
For the past few months, my only glimpse into the personalities of my fellow NJLP peers had come from a sprawled set of emails we exchanged. Then came the culmination of all our anticipation—the day we finally met. Looking around the room, it was hard not to feel a sense of intimidation or inadequacy, after all, fellows going to top tiered universities, board members of various clubs, and leaders of high school political societies surrounded me. Yet, what I didn’t expect as I walked into the room that morning was to come out with a newfound respect not only for all the people around me, but for my identity as a South Asian-American and the role I play in the progression of our minority group as well.
Whether we were taking part in icebreakers by untangling ourselves from a giant human knot; conducting “elevator pitches;” or engaging in debate about abortion, the prison industrial complex, or racism; one thing became overtly clear—this year’s class of fellows were some of the brightest, most analytical, and most passionate group of individuals selected.
Throughout our conversations, I was able to better understand the different perspectives of my fellow cohort all throughout the state. I realized that oftentimes we get so ingrained in the microcosms of our own communities that we fail to realize the overarching problems we all face within our South Asian society. We discussed the role that sheer ignorance and lack of education play in the racism we encounter in our everyday lives and began work on our Capstone Community Service project to help combat these issues.
However, the best part of the day for me was the chance to interact with all our speakers. We were privileged enough to have Passaic County Freeholder Assad Akhtar, Chief of Staff for Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, Marshall Spevak, CEO and President of PARS Environmental, Kiran Gill, and 2016 NJLP fellows Aayush Gandhi and Gita Ganti join us. What was especially refreshing about every single adult we talked to —whether that was Vinay, Amit, or any of our speakers— was that we were all treated as equals. Every single person that came in to talk with us was genuinely invested in enhancing our understanding of the world and cultivating the potential they saw in us.
As I left the building that day, I recall thinking how grateful I felt to be in such a unique program that offers South Asian youth the ability to engage in and learn about local government, and to be surrounded by such inspiring individuals. Though this was only my first week, I can’t wait to see what my future holds with the New Jersey Leadership Program!