Ogechi Oparah '13
Ogechi Oparah had never participated in a book club before coming to Princeton, but after doing some undergraduate service work she decided to form a club for an unorthodox audience of readers: residents of a homeless shelter and rehabilitation center.
In her freshman year, Oparah participated in a Pace Center three-day intersession activity at the Rescue Mission of Trenton, which provides shelter for the homeless and is a residency program for court-mandated residents, many with prior drug convictions. Her intersession activity was to tag clothing in the mission’s store. On her last day, she accepted a coordinator’s challenge to become involved in the mission in a more meaningful way.
“GED tutoring was being offered there, but I thought there were other ways to reach the residents that were less didactic,” she recalls. The germ of an idea for a book club took hold. “We started February 8, 2010, and it’s been going strong since.”
Every Sunday morning, bright and early, Oparah and other Princeton volunteers head to the brick shelter in downtown Trenton. They survey the residents on their interests, brainstorm three or four book options, and leave it up to the residents to decide what they want to read. They’ve covered such works as “Of Mice and Men,” “Tuesdays with Morrie” and authors from Kurt Vonnegut to Mark Twain. Some weeks the theme is dystopia; others it’s the American Dream.
“At the beginning, I went around and very bluntly asked why they were here in the book club,” she says. “One of the guys said, ‘I want to be able to leave here and be able to tell my mom I was part of a book club.” That, along with other positive feedback from the group members, convinced Oparah that the work was meaningful.
Outside of the book club, Oparah’s interests are varied. From the age of 8 she has been a dancer, covering styles from modern dance to jazz. The Alvin Ailey dance company accepted her at age 12, but her father was not comfortable sending her all the way to New York City. At Princeton, she dances in DiSiac, and she teaches dance at Tiger Hall Kids Zone at a daycare center in downtown Princeton. She also belongs to the yoga club.
Her academic major is sociology, and she is earning certificates in environmental studies and African American studies. “I’m really interested in people on a group level, how we interact and how societies work.”
One of her favorite classes was a 300-level theater course “Introduction to Performance Studies: Acting, Being, Doing, and Making” taught by professors Jill Dolan and Stacy Wolf. As a final project, students were required to do a performance piece. Oparah did a brief monologue about her rolling book bag that she had been using as an accommodation for a dancing injury, and then she invited feedback from students.
Oparah says that when she applied to Princeton, the clincher for her was her visit during Princeton Preview, a three-day event in the spring for accepted students. “I went to Preview and saw the dance company of my dreams perform and that was it.”