“Breaking Barriers through Education” was the theme of the first-ever Black History Month program presented last week by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). About 400 students from schools across the state participated in the program, which focused on how education has played a major role in the achievements of successful black Americans.

“I want you to understand that people like me, like Commissioner Repollet, like many of the other adults you have heard from today, Lizette told you her story, we occupy these places that we sit because we acquired an education,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, in her remarks during the program broadcast Feb. 21 on NJTV.

Keynote speaker and former Obama administration official Rashan Prailow spoke about how education helped him turn his life around.

“I was pushed out the system with no direction, no future. I began to transform my life through education. I really want every youth to understand that — to honor black history, to learn black history and to educate other people on black history because it’s our history,” said Prailow.

“The goal is to highlight the African-American culture, to highlight the experiences,” said Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet. He praised “the cultural dances” and the music.

In addition to performances and motivational speeches, students and staff said the program also allowed them to reflect on acceptance and responsibility when it comes to their community.

“They’ve learned a lot about what their role is in making their communities and their people better. How they play a role in pursuing an education and making themselves better so that they can take leadership roles in the future,” said Carteret School District Superintendent Rosa Diaz.

“I could be walking in a hallway and someone would call me out, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so dark.’ I am Nigerian, and me seeing my African culture up there performing, it’s a beautiful sight, and I love it because I feel as if everyone should see what the African culture is really about. And it’s just a beautiful experience,” said Carteret High School sophomore Mary Omokha.

Repollet said the program will be an annual event moving forward, and he hopes it inspires more students of color to pursue education, so they in turn can become leaders of the future.