Samuel Oguntoyinbo, a senior at Solon High School, won the grand prize $40,000 scholarship at the annual Stop the Hate Youth Speak Out Essay Contest from the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.
He was one of 10 high school juniors and seniors who read their essays, which consisted of stories of racial disparity, sexual and cultural discrimination, at Thursday’s awards ceremony at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
“Every single person, all 10 of the finalists, had such good speeches,” said Priyanka Shrestha, of Beachwood High School, who was first runner-up and won a $15,000 scholarship. “We are always told to use our voices and speak our minds. Watching everyone come up and share their personal experiences — (the audience) was listening to every word, it really shows the impact that our words can have and we should continue doing something.”
Kennon Walton, from University School, was the second runner-up scholarship winner and Mackenzie Lee, from Hawken School, took third place in the contest.
“We produced a message for the world to hear,” Sam said. “It’s really important. It’s not about me or anyone up here, it’s about what we had to say.”
Sam says he regretted not submitting an essay last year after reading the winning essays.
“It made me think maybe I have a voice, too, and maybe I should be heard,” he said.
Sam, who is the son of Nigerian immigrants, wrote about personal experiences with bigotry and racism. In his essay, he provided how he will lead the charge and help support causes to battle hate.
He wrote in his essay, “This fall, my school’s Mock Trial team, a club I help lead, worked to raise money for the Ohio Innocence Project, an organization that provides legal representation for unjustly imprisoned individuals, a disproportionate number of whom are black.
“I believe that once we educate others and reinforce our shared humanity, we can do away with much of the ignorance, bigotry, and hatred that plague us as a society,” he wrote. “While this is much easier said than done, the pursuit of this goal is well worth the work it entails.”
Rob Rivera, history teacher and Mock Trial adviser at Solon High School, encouraged his students, including Sam, to submit an essay to the contest.
“Sam is just an amazing kid,” Rivera said. “He’s just a fantastic presence in any class that he is in. I had the pleasure knowing him for four years because he has been in Mock Trial all throughout high school. I remember Sam when he was 14 entering into high school and now he is up on stage; it just brought me to tears watching that growth. The story he told was a true story and it hit him hard. His family is so supportive. It’s kind of the American dream, the son of immigrants who have worked hard to give him the opportunity, and Sam has taken advantage of everything that has been given to him in every possible way.”
Yewande, Sam’s mother, said she was so thankful and joyful when she heard her son’s name called as the grand prize winner.
“I thought it was an essay that was impactful because it was touching something we all feel everyday,” she said about Samuel’s essay. “I know he is passionate about it and something in the future that he would hope to be a champion for.”
“It made me think a lot more about the things I ignore,” Sam says. “It taught me to stand up and have a voice.”