By Bonnie Klein
A few months before I joined the board of NYC Outward Bound Schools, I attended their annual gala to learn more about the organization. The event, which was entirely student-led, allowed me to hear more about the impressive work NYC Outward Bound Schools implements throughout NYC. One speaker, Shazzarda Davis particularly stood out. Top of her class at Bushwick’s Leaders High School, she concluded her speech with the news that she was admitted to Barnard’s class of 2021, quite an achievement, especially for a first generation college student. Recently, I met Shazz, presently a rising junior at Barnard to see what she has been up to these last two years and where she sees herself in the future. I left inspired by this extraordinary young woman and the teachers and program that got her where she is today.
Tell me about where you grew up and what school you attended before Leaders.
I was born in Queens and grew up in Brooklyn. After 9/11, my family moved to Florida for two years and then to Georgia for a year. We came back to Brooklyn when I was in first grade. I attended Joseph Cavallaro in Benson Heights for middle school before enrolling at Leaders in Ninth grade. In middle school, I often felt alone. The school was just too big with close to 1,000 students, and it was hard to make friends. When I applied to high schools my top priority was finding a school where I would feel included and part of a community.
Was an NYC Outward Bound school your first choice?
To be honest, I applied to Leaders because it was close to my house. Also, I remember looking at the credentials and seeing that there was a weeklong camping trip — the [Crew Expedition] intensive — and I thought that would be an excellent chance for me to bond with other students.
What was the most significant difference between your middle school and your high school?
I would say the most significant difference was teacher involvement. I genuinely believe that all my teachers at Leaders genuinely cared about their students. Some mornings I would enter the classroom with a lot of baggage from home, my mom was a single parent doing the best she could, but she was often sick. In class, there was always a sense of safety. . . It’s what I lacked in middle school where there was constant bullying, and I felt that many teachers looked the other way. My teachers at Leaders communicated with us; it was something new to me. They always made it clear that ‘Hey, we’re here to help you. “ It was more than just a job to them.
Were you a good student before Leaders?
Yes, I was always a good student. I have my mom to thank for that because she always stressed how valuable an education is. I think that a lot of middle school kids have the mind frame of play, play, play, while I only focused on my work. That’s why, socially, I didn’t have a lot of friends. But, Leaders truly taught me how to balance a social life with academics, which was something exciting for me.
Was crew a big factor in your day to day?
Yes, it was huge. We had homeroom in middle school, but there never was any encouragement for students to bond. The [Crew Expedition] camping trip laid the foundation to say ‘Hey, we’re here, together, for all four years.’
Do you keep in touch with anybody from school?
Yes! I have a group of friends—we call each other the YANA crew: that stands for You Are Never Alone — and we all keep tabs on each other. I have one friend at Skidmore, one friend at New Paltz, and one friend at The New School who decided to stay in the city.
Let's talk about Barnard and where you are today. Did you always want to attend Barnard?
I didn’t even know about Barnard College before my assistant principal—an alumnus—suggested I apply. She said, ‘Hey, Shazz, I think you would be perfect for Barnard.” I then did a weekend program for women of color called Barnard Bound and knew immediately I would apply early decision. I remember thinking how bold each Barnard student was, and the sense of school spirit on campus. I genuinely believe that if it weren’t for NYC Outward Bound Schools, I wouldn’t be here. My assistant principal sat with me for countless hours, helping me perfect my essays and correct my grammar, which wasn’t my strong point. She was always there, even staying after school hours. If it wasn’t for her, I might not have gotten in. Also, my career advisor introduced me to an organization called Bottom Line, which assists low-income, first-generation students with the college application process.
Do you think your high school education prepared you for college?
I think that when you go to an NYC Outward Bound School you’re encouraged to be passionate about your community, to learn new things and then connect them to the real world. But, if I had to pick one thing I would have liked to have spent more time on is how to structure an essay and utilize stronger writing techniques. I had to work to strengthen those skills first semester. I remember getting my essay back from my first-year workshop . . . I remember my professor telling me, ‘You connect to the outside world a lot; however, you must stay inside of the text. You must learn how to read deeply.’
Is there anything you miss about high school?
I miss a lot of things. I miss my leadership role, as I was very involved [at Leaders]. I especially miss being a peer mediator. It’s one of the factors [that make me] so passionate about urban education, especially restorative justice practices. In terms of criminalization and urban schools, I believe it’s imperative to have a restorative justice program like our peer mediation [program at Leaders] where we would discuss the conflict, and everyone would work towards a resolution. It was a student-led initiative, which was so powerful because it showed the student body that their peers were leaders, their contemporaries’ people to look up to.
NYC Outward Bound Schools aim to instill characteristics such as passion, empathy, and kindness. Do you feel that these skills come to play to be successful in college?
Yes, definitely. Being compassionate, and lending my fellow students a helping hand is something that I carry with me every single day. From my experiences at NYC Outward Bound Schools, I learned that everyone could succeed. Everyone can get an A, and everyone can get a 100 if they work hard enough. I firmly believe that by going to an NYC Outward Bound school I acquired empathy, and I am always there for others when things get rough.
Do you explore the city much or stay near campus?
Before I came to Barnard, I lived in my little Brooklyn bubble. I knew nothing about Harlem, Morningside Heights, Uptown, or Queens. Now that I’ve explored the city more, I’ve become even more interested in urban life. That’s where Urban Studies comes in. I’m curious about what defines a community and its demographics. At Barnard, I am more exposed to city life. I go to museums, flea markets, restaurants, and festivals on and off campus. I love going out in the city. I’ve become such a city girl.
What advice do you have for any current high school students as they apply and head off to college?
Be open-minded and always have integrity. I remember learning the definition of integrity my freshman year [during Crew Expedition]: that it’s important to do the right thing when no one’s watching. And since then it is something I value and try to live by every day. Regarding being open-minded, when I applied to schools I was very lucky and fortunate that I was able to go to my dream school; however, I believe that when one door closes another one opens. If you don’t get into your top pick, don’t worry about the name of the school, worry about how are you going to fit into the community and make your mark.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Again, it’s imperative to be open-minded. I do plan to apply to Columbia’s Graduate School of Social Work. I want to teach and impact students’ lives in the public school sector. I became passionate about that through my summer experience, working and teaching at the Freedom Schools. I’m also intrigued by social reform. At Leaders, we went through metal detectors every day-- you can see first hand the stigma that creates. So though I’d love to teach, I also want to work towards changing policy. Ever since I was 16, I have wanted to build my own nonprofit tailored towards underprivileged children in the education realm. So I have a lot of interests. We’ll see.