“Dark as night.”
“Your mother kept you in the oven too long.”
These were the kinds of racially charged comments that Nosa Akol walked into on her very first day of middle school, which would mark the first time in her life she’d ever been subjected to bullying.
The results were damaging. Nosa admits to The Root that insecurities started to take over. “I felt really insecure,” the 17-year-old student from Binghamton, N.Y., recalls. “Middle school [is] kind of where people start breaking off into their groups, and that’s where I first experienced bullying, and that’s where my insecurities began taking over and just really started to deteriorate me mentally, emotionally and physically.”
Originally from South Sudan, Nosa, who has a rich, dark skin tone, came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 5 years old.
“Growing up in Sudan, everyone there has the same skin tone; no one points that out. And then, growing up in America, everyone has a different skin tone, so [my parents] wouldn’t, even if I had told them about it, there wouldn’t be any understanding. They wouldn’t really know how to deal with it,” she explains, saying that for this reason, she kept the bullying bottled up inside her.
But Nosa’s story is one of triumph and overcoming her insecurities. The Binghamton High School student, who joined Citizen U 4-H as a freshman, has been announced as the 2015 recipient of the 4-H Youth in Action Award, the highest honor in the organization.
She was chosen out of more than 80 other candidates because of her phenomenal story, in which she overcame her personal struggles while empowering her peers and facilitating positive change in her community. Nosa will be honored at the National 4-H Council’s sixth annual Legacy Awards on April 23 in Washington, D.C.
Still, the humble teen says she’s still processing the fact that she was chosen for the award, which will also make her the recipient of a $10,000 scholarship to a college of her choosing.
“I’m still trying to process everything that’s going on. I don’t think I’ve had the time yet to just sit down and actually go through my thoughts, so I’m excited for it, but I don’t think I’ve fully processed everything just yet,” she tells The Root. “A lot of the people that I was competing against have been in the program since they were kindergartners, so for me to win and I’ve only been in it for four years, it’s like a real big shock.”
This triumphant day might have not come if Nosa had let the bullying get to her. According to the teen, the torment got so bad and had such an impact on her, she would make up excuses so she wouldn’t have to go to school. “I didn’t want to wake up in the morning and go to school. I’d come up with excuses as to why I had stay home,” she acknowledges.
Nosa credits the organization for a renewed confidence in herself, through the various projects that she developed and led, including a nutrition-education program in local elementary schools called “Taste the Rainbow” and the “Great Pothole Solution Project,” where she and others mapped out the potholes in their city and helped city officials come to a solution.
“We’ve done projects, not all successful, so we’ve learned to take the good with the bad,” she says. “It made me realize that I can, with my experience, help other people who are my age and make their lives easier so that way, they don’t have to go through what I went through.”
Right now the college-bound teen is hoping to study political science and international agriculture, her mind set on using her degrees to empower women in South Sudan.
“I know that agriculture just does not stop at farming … so I want to find a way to take agriculture and turn it into an education for the women of South Sudan and make that into a business, and hopefully by empowering the women, it empowers the entire community and makes a change and a difference to try and end the violence there,” Nosa tells The Root. “I like to travel, so I don’t think I’d ever stay in one place, so hopefully I’d be able to work in many other countries as well as South Sudan … I just want to travel and help people.”
The ambitious teen also hopes that her story can inspire other kids who want to do something to help their communities, showing them it is possible to effect change, even as youth.
“This generation, we can’t wait for the generations before us or the generations after us to make a change; it’s up to us if we want a better world for ourselves,” she points out. “We need to stand up and we need to do something about it.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.