W.O. teen represents Newark Museum at awards ceremony in D.C.

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NEWARK, NJ — In a room on the third floor of the Newark Museum, a group of high school students gather for an after-school program that teaches them not only about art and what’s in the museum, but the skills they will be using when they are in the so-called “real world” after they receive their high school and college diplomas. The Newark Museum Explorers program caters to students in grades nine through 12, and helps them turn the museum into a playground of learning and building. Tasked with a new project each year, the Explorers do everything from guiding museum tours to planning events and designing exhibits.

In November, the museum was honored with an award from each federal arts agency — the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services — for its effectiveness in teaching skills to young people. Accepting the awards in Washington, D.C., was Samantha Joseph, a top Explorer and West Orange resident.

“It’s special to see the evolution and how it’s gone through changes,” Jessica Nunez, the Museum Explorers program coordinator, said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Dec. 8. A 2004 graduate of the program, Nunez has seen how it has evolved over the years.

“It started out as very science-focused, but now includes art, math and design. What I love is we really incorporate our greatest resource, which is the museum.”

The award-winners were chosen from a pool of 350 nominees and 50 finalists, and Nunez said Joseph, a 17-year-old high school senior, is a good example of the qualities the program values.

“If I didn’t go, I wanted the student to stand on her own,” Nunez said. “Sam is well-spoken and articulate, and she’s proved her personal experience. We wanted to play up her strengths.”

“It was fun,” Joseph said of the awards ceremony in a Dec. 8 interview with the Chronicle. “Out of 40 people they picked me. Going to D.C. made me feel special and I got to represent my friends, and I got to look back and think, ‘What if I didn’t apply?’ It was really cool.”

As she said, Joseph almost didn’t apply to the program. Her older sister was an Explorer — automatically making Joseph unenthusiastic about participating. But then she went to one of her sister’s Explorers events and realized she had to do it.

“I was shy and I didn’t want to talk,” Joseph said about the beginning of her time at the museum. “It had me learning new and different things and honing in on different skills. With the amount of life skills I have, there are benefits that I won’t realize until I’m in an interview.”

Interviews for jobs and colleges are approaching for Joseph, who will receive her high school diploma in June. She is already waiting for acceptance letters from 10 colleges, schools as near as New York University and as distant as the University of Southern California. She plans to major in both communications and theater.

“The museum is part of a long tradition in giving opportunities to young people to be leaders and advocates,” said Sonnet Takahisa, the museum’s deputy director of engagement and innovation, in an interview with the Chronicle on Dec. 8. “They’re serious and hungry for ideas and what becomes important is tools. Using a place like this is interesting.”

Takahisa said that taking the advice of Joseph and the teenagers in the program is important.

“We should take advantage of the advice from young adults, because we’re not going to be relevant in the future,” she said. “They understand how to engage and to see them then come back and use those skills is amazing.”

“There’s always something more to learn,” Joseph said. “I find everything connecting in other parts of my life. I’m getting the benefit of the program.”