New Yale award to honor high school juniors for community engagement

Select high school juniors across the nation will be honored for their public service through the Yale Bassett Award for Community Engagement, established by Yale’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM). The first awards will be presented in the spring of 2017 to high school students in the Class of 2018.

This photograph of Ebenezer Bassett is part of the collection in the Yale Library’s Department of Manuscripts and Archives.

The new award honors the legacy of influential educator, abolitionist, and public servant Ebenezer Bassett (1833-1908), the United States’ first African American diplomat.

“Ebenezer Bassett is an exemplar of so many qualities we seek to foster in all Yale students,” said Yale President Peter Salovey. “He was a superb intellectual who used the fruits of his education to serve his fellow global citizens and contribute to a more unified world. We are proud to bring heightened awareness of his name and legacy to those who follow in his footsteps today — and particularly to do so by recognizing outstanding young people who are tomorrow’s college students.”

Professor Stephen Pitti, director of the RITM Center, added: “The faculty in the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration established this award to honor emerging leaders who, like Ebenezer Bassett in the 19th century, bring under-recognized perspectives to the public sphere, think hard about our collective futures, work on behalf of others, and exemplify intelligence and courage.”

Born into a Native American (Schaghticoke) and African American family nearly 200 years ago, Bassett was the first black student admitted to the Connecticut Normal School (now Central Connecticut State University). He excelled there and at Yale, where he pursued courses in mathematics and classics in the 1850s. Bassett was a friend and supporter of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and served as principal of the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheney University). He was named consul general to Haiti (becoming the first African American ambassador) and as chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic, gaining a hemispheric understanding of racial politics. He also served as Haiti’s consul in New York City.

“I am incredibly excited to see the Bassett Award established and even more excited that it will honor high school juniors who demonstrate a commitment to their respective communities through an unusual capacity for caring and leadership,” said Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway. “Our new Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration is going to have a significant and positive impact on our campus. With this award, RITM is signaling that it is determined to have a similar effect beyond Yale’s physical boundaries.”

Winners of the Yale Bassett Award for Community Engagement will be chosen based on their record of creative leadership and public service, academic distinction, interdisciplinary problem solving, and experience addressing societal issues that might include, but need not be limited to, race and racism. Students with non-traditional leadership experiences or significant work experiences are also encouraged to apply. 

“As a historian specializing in Asian American history and ethnic studies, I am keenly aware of the importance of youth activism for affecting lasting social change,” said Professor Mary Lui, a faculty member at the RITM Center. “Ebenezer Bassett grew up in Connecticut where slavery remained legal until 1848 and achieved the remarkable position of consul general to Haiti just a few years after the end of the Civil War. His inspiring career as an educator, abolitionist, and public servant will hopefully motivate many young people to follow in his footsteps.”

Applicants in the class of 2018 should provide an account of their relevant experiences and aspirations (up to 500 words), a description of their academic record, a list of their extracurricular commitments and leadership positions, and the name of a teacher, mentor, coach, religious leader, community-based non-profit leader, or community member who will provide them with a letter of recommendation. The application deadline is Feb. 1, 2017. Interested students can apply here. The RITM Center also encourages school counselors, high school teachers and administrators, Yale alumni, community members, and others to nominate outstanding students here.

Winners will be announced in mid-April 2017. They will receive a book signed by the dean of Yale College and be invited to a gathering during their senior years hosted by the RITM Center at Yale in October 2017.

“The Bassett Award is a fantastic new opportunity for Yale to recognize high school students who actively engage their peers around important topics and demonstrate leadership in addressing societal issues,” said Alfie Daniels, director of multicultural recruitment in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. “Yale seeks students who value community-based approaches to solving problems, and this award showcases Yale’s commitment to educating community leaders who seek to create a more inclusive society.”

The RITM Center created the Bassett Award in consultation with the Offices of the Yale College Dean, President, and Admissions, and with the Association of Yale Alumni.

Questions about the award can be directed to

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