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From turmoil, a S. Phila. High honor

Student leader will get a key Princeton award.

Wei Chen at a December news conference. He pushed the school district to address long-standing race problems. (April Saul / Staff)
Wei Chen at a December news conference. He pushed the school district to address long-standing race problems. (April Saul / Staff)Read more

Wei Chen, the senior who demanded accountability from school officials when Asian students were attacked at South Philadelphia High, has been awarded the Princeton Prize in Race Relations from Princeton University.

Chen, 18, was awarded the prize for "exceptional and sustained leadership" that encouraged ethnic understanding and explored solutions to tensions within the school, officials said in a statement. As president of the Chinese-American Student Association, "he worked to bring media attention to issues of student violence in general and against Asian immigrant students in particular."

The prize honors high school students who perform exceptional work to improve race relations in their communities. It is given annually to one or two students in each of 23 regions around the country.

Chen could not be reached for comment last night.

On Dec. 3, Asian students at South Philadelphia High suffered a daylong assault by groups of mostly African American classmates. The attacks sent seven students to hospitals and sparked a contentious, weeklong boycott by about 50 Asian students.

Throughout, Chen was the most visible of student leaders. He pointed out that many black and Asian youths were friends, saying it was school supervisors who had failed. He pushed the school district to address long-standing problems of violence.

"A new immigrant, who took America at its words: Democracy, freedom, access to education," said Dora Lee, cochair of the Philadelphia regional selection committee. "He kind of reminded us of all our responsibilities to the young of this country." Lee noted that Chen had organized students and worked within the school before stepping into the spotlight after Dec. 3.

He was nominated by Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, a Philadelphia advocacy group.

The Princeton Prize was created by college alumni in 2003 and carries a $1,000 award. Princeton has not yet released the names of all of the winners.

Previous winners include a student who worked with faculty to develop a course called "Diversity in America," another who wrote a regular school-newspaper column on race, and a third who created "Diversity Week" to honor students of different races.

"It is a sought-after and valued prize," said Marguerite Vera, the university associate director for affiliated groups and the Princeton Prize in Race Relations.

Chen will receive the prize at a ceremony April 29.