The Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration honored the winners of a new community engagement award at a ceremony Friday.

The new award — the Yale Bassett Award for Community Engagement — goes to high school juniors who demonstrate creative leadership and public service, academic distinction, problem solving and experience addressing societal problems, including issues of race and racism. According to Erin Johnson, the associate director of RITM, the award was one of the first initiatives the center introduced after it was created in February 2016. Almost 900 juniors from 47 states applied to receive the award, and 20 were selected as the inaugural winners, said Stephen Pitti, the center’s director and the head of Ezra Stiles College. The winners were announced in April 2017, and 16 of them arrived on campus for the official award ceremony on Friday, which was held in the Afro-American Cultural Center.

“When the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration was first launched, we anticipated that the Center would play an important role both on campus and beyond that campus” said University President Peter Salovey in his remarks to the awardees. “Your being here really reflects the fact that the center engages with the Yale community, the surrounding community and really our entire country on these issues.”

According to Johnson, Yale funded travel and lodging for each awardee and their accompanying parent or guardian. All the winners received a book — “Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940,” written by the former dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway and signed by Holloway and Pitti. Before awarding the book to each winner, Pitti spoke briefly about the student’s accomplishments.

The award honors the legacy of Ebenezer Bassett, a Connecticut native of African and Native American descent who studied at Yale in the 19th century and was an influential educator, abolitionist and public servant, as well as the United States’ first black diplomat, according to the RITM website.

“In a lot of ways he is emblematic of a lot of things that we focus on in our academic work,” Johnson said.

She added that the award was also created to recognize the “next generation of leaders” and people interested in topics of race, indigeneity and transnational migration.

Pitti said the students were selected by a committee comprised of faculty affiliated with RITM, administrators doing work related to RITM, and at least one graduate student. The juniors could apply for the award themselves or be nominated by community and high school leaders, as well as Yale students, faculty and alumni, Johnson said

“[The awardees] earned distinctions in classrooms and laboratories while providing generous service and intellectual leadership to others, excelling in athletics and the arts and the other fields,” Pitti said in his opening remarks. “Our faculty was impressed and inspired by their vision, and we are confident that their commitment and their energy will provide much needed leadership for our society in the years to come.”

Although the Bassett award is administered by RITM alone, the Yale Admissions Office helped the center devise a timeline for the application process and connect with high school juniors, according to Director of Outreach and Communications Mark Dunn.

Dunn added that while winners of the award will not have a particular advantage over other applicants if they choose to apply to Yale, the award is a great way for students to learn about RITM, as well as Yale’s commitment to the important issues being studied at the center.

The awards ceremony took place the weekend of the annual Multicultural Open House, hosted by the Admissions Office, which Dunn and Johnson said provided an opportunity for the awardees to engage with the Yale community.

Iesha-LaShay Phillips, an awardee from Jenks, Oklahoma, said that she decided to apply for the award because she is, like Bassett himself, of both African and Native American descent and an activist in her community. Thus, she said, the award “personally related” to her.

She added that it was “empowering” to hear about the achievements of the other awardees.

“It just motivates me to keep going because there are people who are like me, and maybe one day I can get into Yale and do these things with these awesome people,” she said.

Sana Shareef, an awardee from Port St Lucie, Florida, said that she liked that administrators recognized each student’s individual accomplishments throughout the ceremony, as it “helped [the attendees] understand each human experience and it just made it all the more worthwhile.”

Shareef added that she applied for the award because she got involved in interfaith dialogue as a sophomore in high school and wanted to see if Yale “would recognize [her] efforts.”

“I really appreciate that they did and that they think that what I’m doing is important because, again, it just validates that what I’m doing is making a difference,” she said.

The next application cycle for the Bassett Award for Community Engagement will begin in November 2017.

Anastasiia Posnova | anastasiia.posnova@yale.edu