Two Salem students chosen to represent Oregon in U.S. Senate leadership program

Justin Thach, senior at West Salem High School (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

For West Salem senior Justin Thach, moving to Oregon from New Jersey in the middle of high school was a shock.

Thach, the son of Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants, found less racial diversity and a tendency for Oregonians to be less confrontational.

But the biggest surprise was the difference in public schools, he said. Problems like chronic absenteeism and a general lack of resources were new to him.

“The way that we fund education in Oregon, it’s not a lot. It’s not really prioritized,” he said.

That motivated him to get involved with Oregon Student Voice, a student-led nonprofit organization encouraging middle and high schoolers to advocate for change in the education system. Thach has worked as the group’s communications coordinator, speaking with educators and legislators.

“They should look to the students for their own voices,” Thach said.

In March, Thach will join South Salem senior Kudzai Kapurura on a week-long trip to represent Oregon in the nation’s capital.

The two were selected by the Oregon Department of Education for the 2019 U.S. Senate Youth Leadership Program, which includes an opportunity to meet with Senate leaders and Vice President Mike Pence, and a $10,000 college scholarship.

Like Thach, Kapurura is a first-generation American who has worked on a district and state level to shape education policy. Both aspire to go to law school and continue their involvement in government.

Kudzai Kapurura, senior class president at South Salem High School (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Kapurura serves as senior class president at South and is part of a student equity committee in Salem-Keizer that advises Superintendent Christy Perry.

She’s also a student advisor on the state board of education, which has allowed her to visit other districts and see how the state coordinates policy to improve student learning.

“It’s really interested to see how equity is being worked out on the top,” she said.

Both said their experiences growing up in multiple cultures have shaped their education and hopes for the future.

Kapurura’s parents came to Texas from Zimbabwe two decades ago, fleeing a repressive government and leaving behind friends, family and a familiar language.

Her father, a lawyer, had to attend law school a second time in the U.S. to be able to practice, and moved the family to Keizer so he could study at Willamette University.

As one of just a handful of black students in Salem schools, Kapurura said she often has to defend against stereotypes that black teens aren’t successful.

When she was a freshman, she got into a political discussion with a friend’s mother during a car ride home, she said. The conversation turned ugly when the woman told Kapurura out of the blue that one in eight black teens end up pregnant.

“Whether that statistic is true or not, why would she tie my name to that?” Kapurura said.

Thach said growing up, he was struck by the differences between many Asian cultures, which emphasize obedience and loyalty to family, and American culture, which is highly individualistic.

Conversations with friends about that dichotomy, and about the representations of Asians in Hollywood, led him to start a website documenting the experiences of Asian-American youth through writing and photography.

That morphed into him starting a group called Young Asian Leaders of America, which has connected student leaders across the country and publishes a regular magazine featuring poetry, interviews and reporting about issues affecting Asian-Americans.

As accomplished students and leaders, Kapurura and Thach said they’re often viewed as exceptions to stereotypes about immigrants and their race, which can be difficult to navigate.

“People always look at me like one of the good ones,” Kapurura said.

“Like an exception,” Thach added, nodding.

The pair was chosen for the U.S. Senate program from among 25 Oregon students nominated by principals. They joined four other semifinalists for a day of interviews and meetings at the Oregon Capitol in November, where they met Gov. Kate Brown and other state leaders.

They will travel to Washington D.C. the first week of March.

Aside from the financial help attending college, Kapurura said she’s most looking forward to meeting her peers from other states.

“There’s just a certain feeling in being surrounded by people who are like-minded… people who are just as ambitious and just as driven as you,” she said.

Thach agreed.

“This is going to be a community in the future that we’re going to tap into,” Thach said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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This article was updated on Feb. 22, 2019.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.