Amara Ifeji Photo by Jennifer Megquier

On Friday, during a virtual town hall on racism, former President Barack Obama had an encouraging message for young people using their voices and their actions to make this country a better, healthier place.

“You’re saying to yourself, ‘I have agency. I can make a difference. I can have an impact,’” Obama said. “‘I might not be able to change all of it, but I can change this corner of it.’”

Amara Ifeji knows of what the man speaks.

Amara attended her last class on Friday – online, of course – as a senior at Bangor High School. She’ll enroll at Northeastern University in Boston this fall, with a $5,000 scholarship from Mainely Character, an organization that each year honors a handful of high school graduates for demonstrating four basic qualities: courage, integrity, responsibility and concern for others.

All of which, in a nutshell, define Amara.

Born in Nigeria 18 years ago, she came to this country with her parents and younger sister in 2004. They settled first with extended family in Maryland and moved to Maine eight years ago so Amara’s mother, then a nurse, could pursue her doctor-of-pharmacy degree at Husson University.

Amara was in fourth grade at the time. Moving to Bangor was, to say the least, a culture shock.

One of only two black students at the time in her intermediate school, she remembers playing four-square one day during recess early in the school year. She’d never played the game before, but much to her delight, she managed to win against one of her male classmates, who was white.

That’s when her new reality came crashing down.

“He proceeded to call me a racial slur,” Amara recalled. “As well as an animal. It’s ingrained in my mind to this day.”

It would not be the last such incident as Amara proceeded through intermediate and middle school. But in those years, she felt powerless to push back, a young girl in a strange place who wanted only to fit in like the other kids – not be singled out by the color of her skin.

But the harder she tried, the harder it got. In seventh grade, Amara and two friends – both of color – threw a party. With the next week came another party at a white girl’s house and, much to their dismay, none of the three girls made the guest list.

Then came high school – and an epiphany. Amara’s longtime reluctance to be stereotyped as the “angry black girl” gave way to the realization that, yes, she was black and, yes, she was angry.

“It wasn’t like the racially insensitive acts were dwindling. No, they were increasing,” she said. “At my high school, there was this boy, he had the ‘n-word’ drawn in the dirt on his car. And I see every day people are posting racial slurs on their Instagram, Snapchat, all forms of social media.”

And, truth be told, it wasn’t just the kids. She remembers working in a local retail store when a woman impulsively reached over the cash register one day and grabbed Amara’s hair, asking if she could do so only as she’d gone ahead and done it.

Finally, during her junior year, Amara and a friend decided to stop going with the flow. They proposed the formation of Bangor High School’s first-ever Multicultural Student Union, dedicated to eradicating the ignorance that, in Amara’s opinion, is at the root of so much racist behavior.

The friend graduated last year, but Amara forged ahead last fall.

Her immediate goal was to organize a voluntary training program in diversity and bias for her fellow students. The idea failed to get any real traction until, at a joint meeting of Bangor’s City Council and School Committee in December, Amara and others spoke their minds about the need for Bangor schools to catch up with these challenging times.

“It’s so important that these conversations be taken up to the adult level, with adults so that they are able to address the implicit biases that they probably don’t even know they have,” she told the elected leaders, according to News Center Maine (WCSH-TV/WLBZ-TV).

It worked. In January, Bangor High School held two assemblies – one for juniors and seniors, the other for freshmen and sophomores. For the first time, the entire school body confronted racial bias in all of its insidious manifestations.

“I was super, super happy about it,” Amara said. “The way I view it, school is really a microcosm of society. Whatever happens in school directly reflects on what is happening in society. … I think that schools really, really, really have a huge hand in rewriting a lot of the biases that this country faces.”

Including that persistent bias that immigrants, especially those with dark skin, are somehow a threat to all America holds dear.

When they first came to this country, Amara recalled, she and her parents and sister were four of 15 people living in a three-bedroom house in Maryland. “We had every form of government assistance there was,” she said.

Today, her mother, Ifeoma Ifeji, works as an inpatient pharmacist for Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center. Her father, Izuchukw Onyejekwe, is working online toward his Ph.D. in business administration.

And Amara? She’s well on her way to becoming a scientist.

A four-year student in Bangor High School’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program, she’s been working since her junior year on a project titled “Testing the Effectiveness of Mycorrhizae in the Phytoremediation of Heavy Metals From Stormwater.” Translation: Using certain fungi and plants to remove heavy metals from contaminated water. Amara’s inspiration came in part from the discovery of lead in the water from four Bangor High School drinking fountains in 2016.

The project won her first in category and third place overall at the 2019 Maine State Science Fair. In addition to $2,000 for college, the awards netted her an all-expense-paid trip to Arizona a year ago last month for the Intel Science and Engineering Fair – a gathering of 1,800 young scientists from more than 80 countries, regions and territories.

While most of the other kids headed off to enjoy a baseball game, Amara remembers staying behind in her hotel room, fine-tuning her presentation because “I didn’t want to disgrace myself.”

She needn’t have worried. She placed first in Plant Sciences and also won Best in Category, adding another $8,000 to her college fund.

Then last January, the Regeneron Science Talent Search, an offshoot of the Society for Science & the Public, announced its annual award winners, including the young woman from Bangor. With that prize came another $2,000 toward Amara’s college tuition.

Barbara Stewart, director of the STEM program at Bangor High School, has watched Amara blossom – both as a scientist and as an agent for social change – since her freshman year.

“I’m going to miss her,” Stewart said in a telephone interview. “She’s going to change the world. I’m going to say I knew her when.”

Amara’s Mainely Character scholarship was sponsored by 100+ Women Who Care Southern Maine, a monthly gathering of women who since 2014 have awarded more than $272,000 to local charities. After hearing Mainely Character’s pitch at a recent meeting, the women contributed individual checks totaling $15,000 – enough to fund three $5,000 scholarships for three years.

Meaning, as she heads for Northeastern this fall – she’ll double-major in environmental studies and international affairs – Amara will have $17,000 propelling her forward. All from adults far and wide who know a success story in the making when they see one.

Just as importantly, when she graduates next weekend, Amara will leave a school better than she found it. A place where they now talk about things that went unspoken for far too long. Where her younger sister, Kosis, a rising junior, now has a smoother path to follow.

Sure, Bangor is what President Obama might call a small corner of the world.

But a brave girl from Nigeria changed it.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.