Shawnee Mission East senior Mia Rios has spent a good deal of her time and energy the past two years trying to foster better understanding between students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Earlier this week, those efforts were rewarded with recognition from Princeton University.
Rios was one of four Kansas City area students to received a Princeton Prize in Race Relations Certificate of Accomplishment at a ceremony in the offices of Polsinelli on the Plaza Tuesday. A fifth student, from Blue Valley West, earned the top honor for the region.
Working with civics teacher David Muhammad, Rios helped organize a series of tours that brought students from Shawnee Mission East together with students from Wyandotte High School and Raytown High School to learn about racial history in Kansas City and to foster dialogue about race relations. They visited the neighborhoods around Troost Ave. and discussed how that street had become Kansas City’s racial dividing line. They toured Kansas City, Kan., to learn about the history of minority communities in Wyandotte county.
Rios, who is of Mexican descent, was also instrumental in expanding a club for minority students at Shawnee Mission East informally dubbed “The Union.”
Rios grew up in Fairway and attended Highlands Elementary. She said being a minority in a predominantly white area had its challenges, but that she appreciated her experience in Shawnee Mission schools.
“Growing up, I never really saw race as an issue, other than I did notice that my skin color was different than the other kids at school,” she said. “When I got to East, it was a little overwhelming to suddenly be in this huge place with 1,200 kids and it did feel a little more like you were different.”
She said working with Muhammad, who was the first minority teacher she had, her sophomore year made her feel more comfortable and allowed her to connect with other minority students. His encouragement led her not only to get involved with the tours, but to apply for the Princeton prize.
“He’s a mentor to me,” she said.
As for the award, Rios said it was an emotional experience.
“My mom was sitting two rows from me [at the ceremony], and I could see her eyes were glossy,” Rios said. “I’ve seen my mom proud of me before, but I could tell she was super proud this time. I really felt like this was something where we connect. It was kind of an ‘ah-ha’ moment where I realized that what we’re doing meant something.”
Rios plans to attend JCCC next fall and take classes to prepare for a bachelor’s degree in nursing.