Arlington high schooler earns prestigious Princeton prize for DEI work at Arlington Tech

Marlene Reyes (courtesy photo)

A high school student from Arlington was recently awarded a 2024 Princeton Prize in Race Relations for her work in helping to advance racial equity within her school community.

Marlene Reyes, a junior attending Arlington Tech at the Arlington Career Center, is among 28 high school students nationwide recognized by the university for their contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their schools and communities. The prizes are awarded by region.

Reyes, who serves on the Arlington County NAACP Youth Council and is a member of the Career Center’s Equity Action Team, started her journey of helping to promote racial equity after her first year at Arlington Tech. During that first year, Reyes says she and her peers frequently experienced microaggressions and encountered bias from students and faculty.

“I go to a really, really small school, and we are also a predominantly white school and a predominantly white male school,” she told ARLnow. “So, my freshman year, there wasn’t a whole lot of safe spaces for me and my friends of color.”

Beginning her sophomore year, with support from DEI coordinator Monica Lozano Caldera, Reyes says she created a safe space for students of color to discuss their thoughts, feelings, and experiences at school. She began organizing professional development seminars for faculty to educate them about implicit bias and the impact of microaggressions on students’ mental health.

During these seminars, Reyes says her peers can share their experiences and faculty have a safe space to learn and ask questions.

“Being able to be in a safe space with our teachers is really nice,” Reyes said. “And it’s helped, I think, student-teacher relationships a lot as well. We are able to be more open with each other and openly communicate when there’s something wrong happening.”

Reyes emphasized that the point is not to blame teachers but to create an open dialogue between students and teachers to increase their awareness of each other’s boundaries.

“We’re trying to make change, right? And so, teachers are going to say things that are wrong, but we’re ultimately just trying to create a safe space for everyone,” she said. And so we’re just making that space to be uncomfortable together.”

So far, Reyes says school staff and the principal have been “very receptive” to the seminars conducted by Reyes and her peers, which she added have led to many meaningful conversations.

During a ceremony at Princeton last month, recipients of the award, which Reyes applied for last fall, were presented with a plaque. Each will also receive a $1,000 cash prize.

Inspired by fellow prize winners, Reyes has developed several new proposals that she hopes to experiment with at her school and possibly at the county level if given the opportunity.

“We plan to continue doing [professional development seminars], and we’re working with our advisor from the county already and my principal on a bunch of new ideas,” she said.