Ward 8 Student Challenges Perceptions Abroad and at Home

Jabari Jefferson on the Great Wall of China. He was one of 10 students in the DC area to participate in the APSA Summer Program in Beijing. Photo: Raquel Jefferson

This summer 10 high school students from DC and Prince George’s County traveled to Beijing as part of the Americans Promoting Study Abroad (APSA) Summer Program. When they returned they made a video detailing their expectations and experiences. Jabari Jefferson, a senior at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, directed the video, which premiered during International Education Week, observed during the week of Nov. 18.

DC China Scholars

This summer marked the sixth year that APSA partnered with the DC Center for Global Education and Leadership (DC CGEL) for the latter's DC China Scholars Program. “There is a shortage of American students learning critical languages,” said Sally Schwartz, DC CGEL's founder and executive director. “We live in a big world and students need to learn about it. We don't do enough.” Schwartz and her organization are responsible for the selection, preparation, and follow-up processes. “One requirement is that they have prior Chinese language studies and have the ability to continue,” she explained. As a result, participants are usually between the ages of 15 and 18. “The rest is a combination of grades, leadership, and maturity,” Schwartz continued.

Schwartz got to know Jefferson and his fellow students during a series of meeting prior to the trip. “He's a really interesting guy,” she said. “He's highly motivated and artistic. He's funny, but he has a serious side.” Schwartz also noted that Jefferson's maturity helped make him a natural leader in the group. “In this group it's not always evident who will step up in that role,” she explained. “He really came through for us.”

Meet Jabari

A Historic Anacostia resident, Jefferson has proved his leadership abilities in the community. For instance, he is a member of Phelps' Men of Strength Club (MOST), promoting domestic violence prevention. “It's more like a family of mentors,” he explained. “Not all black males have figures to look up to. Luckily we have that support.” Jefferson is also an avid volunteer who has worked at Honfleur Gallery and the Lumin8 festival and runs his own business. “It's more of a family-run lawncare business,” he admitted. His father, Eric, laughed, saying, “No, it's all you!”

Experiencing China

As part of his study abroad curriculum Jefferson kept a journal of his experiences; some entries can be found on the official APSA/JUMP Foundation blog (http://apsaglobal.org/apsajump/). In his first blog post he discussed potential culture clashes. “My culture will impact Beijing for it is foreign to what they may encounter on a daily basis,” he wrote. “Those who aren’t tolerant will only disagree with my beliefs and life choices, but those who are tolerant will have open arms with acceptance. Their culture will definitely impact my life for it’s completely different, but deep inside we all share similar qualities.” This theme continued in later posts, especially when he learned more about Chinese history and culture. “I have always wanted to dig deeper into China’s culture, rituals, religions, government, and art,” he wrote. “China’s past has definitely laid down the blueprints of how their society conducts itself today.”

This was the inspiration behind the DC China Scholars' “China Tomorrow” project, a video that explains Chinese stereotypes and how they align with their experiences. “Since we have lived in China, we have experienced many different things,” Jefferson wrote. “Many of us were not expecting a very modernized and elegant city, but through our exposure China proved us wrong.”

Changing Perceptions

With Jefferson's academic successes, his parents hope that he will continue changing others' perceptions of African-American men in Ward 8. “One time Jabari was taking the bus and the police stopped him because he fit the description of a man who broke someone's window,” said Raquel, Jefferson's mother. “Luckily he was saved by a witness.” Despite situations like this she and Eric continue show their son that there is more to life than spending time on the street corner. “We hold an open-door policy with our children,” Raquel said. “We're honest. If there are things he needs to answer for, we talk about it.” Eric agreed and added this piece of advice: “Listen and talk to your kids ... We deal with the same issues, but we don't use it as an excuse.”

Jefferson credits his family for encouraging him to follow academic aspirations. He tries set a good example for others. “I don't judge my friends on where they live,” he said. “I try to uplift them, show respect, and give them support.” When asked about the advice he would give to other teens, he replied, “A lot of people are afraid of being themselves. They don't want to be judged ... Be self-reliant. Question life for yourself in the right way; don't be disrespectful and do something positive.”