Senior Dorah Stephen: Houston award winner, African immigrant, inspiration


Courtesy of Dorah Stephen

Stephen chose to wear an African-print dress in her senior pictures to recognize her heritage as she plans her future.

IB student, passionate leader and exceptional friend are all ways to describe senior Dorah Stephen. At school, she can often be found socializing with friends or participating in National Art Honors Society, track or Empowered Club. However, Northern High School is not where her story starts. Stephen’s story begins 17 years ago and 8,282 miles away in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Dorah and her mother in Tanzania shortly before her mother left for the US. Photo courtesy of Dorah Stephen.

Stephen’s road to adversity started when she was just two, when her father unexpectedly passed away. After that traumatic event, it was just Dorah and her mother, struggling to get by in Dar es Salaam, the former capital and one of the most populous cities in Tanzania. Shortly thereafter, Stephen was forced to adjust to more life changes: when she was four, her mom had the opportunity to move to the United States to advance her education…alone. Her mother had to make the painful decision to leave Dorah behind in Africa while she prepared a new life for them halfway across the world.

“Tears rolled down my face as I screamed at the top of my lungs. I shrieked out for her as she walked away,” Stephen says, recalling her heartbreaking separation from her mother at the airport. Her grandmother came to take care of her, and she maintained contact with her mother through frequent phone calls and photos, but it was not the same as being together in real life. “I had to hear her voice and was left wondering what it felt like to be held by her,” Stephen recalls wistfully.

Once Stephen was seven, she and her grandmother were finally able to come to the United States join her mother. “[I was] ecstatic about seeing my mother after three years of being apart,” Stephen remembers. The effects of the time spent on different continents, however, began to manifest themselves immediately: when they arrived at the Detroit airport, Stephen knew that the woman rushing to embrace her with tears in her eyes was her mother, but she knew this from the woman’s emotional greeting, not because her face was familiar. Regardless, Dorah was elated to be reunited.

Despite the joys of being together as a family, Stephen faced several difficulties. “When I moved here, I spoke British English, so adjusting to the U.S. dialect of English was difficult. [In addition] I never thought to have had an African accent, but once I moved, my accent combined with my dialect created a communication barrier.” While adjusting to her new life, what Stephen missed most about Tanzania was the food, culture and having her extended family living close to her.

Stephen was soon enrolled as a third grader at Kalamazoo Junior Academy, a local private school. “I was relearning everything [in third grade that] I learned in my second grade class in Tanzania. It felt like I was being held back in a scene,” she remembers. While she was an excellent student, getting used to a new school was difficult, and the communication barrier she struggled with made it challenging for her to settle into her new school and make new friends.

She knew that she had come too far to allow this setback to get the best of her, and by reading everything she could, allowing her mother to push her and challenging herself, the academic hardships grew fewer over time. Even when she was able to be comfortable in school, she didn’t stop pushing: she decided to take honors and IB English courses in high school as a way to challenge herself in her weakest content area. “Dorah is that wonderful and rare combination of a keenly socially aware student who, at the same time, has empathy for those around her who are still less conscious of the complexities of our culture,” says retired IB English teacher Nancy Nott, who had Stephen in class last year. “As a result, Dorah has strong and well-informed views, but always maintains an open mind and heart to the thoughts and opinions of others. Through her subtle sense of humor and excellent listening skills, she helps to elevate the nature of discourse in the classroom and beyond.”

Stephen didn’t stop at IB English: she also takes IB Math Studies and IB Spanish. “She always pushes herself to engage with her peers and speak Spanish! [Additionally], she’s always so encouraging to her peers,” says Stephen’s IB Spanish teacher, Kaitie Paynich. In college, she plans to double major in biology and psychology and later pursue a career in medicine.

Stephen accepts the Houston Award from Dr. Houston himself at the Winterfest Pep Assembly. Photo by Cameron Myers.

Regardless of the hardships Stephen has faced, her drive, strength and determination have not gone unrecognized: On Friday, February 8th, Stephen received the Dr. Houston Award. Named after Empowered Club co-leader and PNHS staff member Dr. James Huston, it recognizes one senior student every year that has overcome extreme adversity and challenges. “It is important to recognize students to let them know that hard work and perseverance more times than not has their rewards. It also serves as an incentive to continue hard work in their future endeavors,” says Houston about the award. While he does not decide the actual winner (Student Senate narrows teacher nominations down to four candidates, and then the whole staff votes after reading the students’ essays), Houston “very much agreed” with Stephen as the recipient, and he knows her well through his weekly interactions with her on a weekly basis through Empowered Club.
Stephen was in awe at receiving the award, which was presented in front of the whole school at the Winterfest pep assembly. “I was excited, emotional and speechless. I didn’t know what to say when I was asked to give a speech. I was very thankful for the award because I had the opportunity to tell some of my story and it was very meaningful to be recognized for my accomplishments,” she says. “I come from a family that has been through a lot and I want to utilize every opportunity I am given. Everything I do is to honor my dad by doing well in life regardless of the circumstances and challenges that come in my direction.”