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I was 17 when I saw a gun up close for the first time. I was at the house of a childhood friend. He was a gang member and had been getting more and more involved in the  street life.

“Wanna see something, Rana?” he asked.

He went into another room and rustled around and returned with a partially opened shoebox. Iron dimly sparkled from within.

“Is that what I think it is?” I questioned him. He looked at me blankly.

I was confused. I guess he really was getting “in deep” as he liked to tell me.  I guess the life he was living was something I could never understand, a stark contrast to our innocent bike-riding, tag-playing childhood days.

Tears started to run down my face.

“Why you crying? Stop crying, Rana.”

But I couldn’t. The tears continued to fall. He put the iron back into the box and returned it to its hiding place.

Fast forward one year: I was a Freshman at Princeton. It was October. I had just received a call from an unknown number. “Hello?” I answered. “Hey Rana, it’s me.” I recognized the voice of my friend instantly.  “How you been?…You like Princeton?” the conversation continued for a few minutes and ended with a simple “just checking on you… I’ll hit you up soon.”

But he didn’t. In fact, we didn’t speak for another three years. A few months after that phone call, my friend was sentenced to prison for illegal weapon possession charges.

Around the same time, I started volunteering in prison with the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program, a program that allows students to tutor young male inmates (aged 18-25) in local NJ state prisons getting their high school diplomas and GEDs.  When I saw the flyer advertising the program, I knew I had to sign up. I knew I wanted to help.

See, I’m from Orange,  a small neighborhood in New Jersey.  Orange is an  urban suburb of  the infamous Newark, New Jersey and shares many of the town’s pitfalls such as crime, violence, and economic instability. At the age of 12, I was provided an opportunity that changed my life. The chance to attend a prestigious college preparatory school, Dwight Englewood, which was located about 20 miles from my house.  For middle and high school, I was exposed to so many people and things I don’t think I would have ever experienced in Orange. The cultural and social capital I built and the connections and networks I made allowed me great opportunities. I became educated in the liberal arts way. I was prepared for success. Located in one of the richest counties in the United States, Dwight Englewood was paradise, a place where it was very easy to forget about “reality.”

But I had to go home every day.  I went home to a neighborhood riddled with hopelessness. In my junior year of high school, a dear childhood friend of mine died. I was devastated.  I remember going to his wake and not recognizing his face in the casket. I remember the swarms of his friends who proudly wore the insignia  “G.I.P…” Grape in Peace. These individuals were paying homage to the same force that killed him. It sickened me.

I went home to a neighborhood where my best friends were getting a subpar, unchallenging educational experience. I went home to a neighborhood that was in utter social despair, both physically and spiritually. I had a sense of survivor’s guilt. At the same time, I felt like I had to change something.

To whom much is given, much is expected.

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