The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory is honored each year at GW by the Multicultural Student Services Center, which confers medals upon a group of outstanding students whose lives reflect King’s “dream and vision.”
This year, four seniors – Jason Anthony, Zaheer Arastu, Ishmael Renard Mitchell and Ramya Vivekanandan – will receive the honor.
Just after graduating high school, Anthony said he told his family and friends that he was gay, a decision he said resulted in many instances of intolerance, the most painful coming from members of his extended family and faith.
The clash between his traditional anti-gay religious beliefs and Anthony’s sexual orientation sent him on a journey of self-discovery that had profound effects on both his personal understanding and his approach to educating others.
“People should be encouraged to think for themselves and really examine their beliefs,” Anthony said. “Discussion of other viewpoints is always a good thing. You might not change people’s minds, but understanding others can at least help you clarify your own beliefs.”
Anthony, who hopes to be an Episcopalian minister one day, has organized multi-religious discussion panels on topics such as “Homosexuality in the Bible” for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Alliance, which he currently advises. Anthony is the executive assistant to the GW Board of Chaplains and serves as coordinator for the Diversity Program Clearing House, a resource for campus multicultural programming.
“I can’t accept that God just took a cookie cutter and tried to make every human being exactly the same,” he said.
King’s overwhelming faith in God was an example for Arastu.
“In the face of any obstacle, he could stand,” Arastu said of King. “He didn’t fear anything in this world. His faith allowed him the strength to overcome any obstacle.”
Arastu said he is motivated by Islam’s mandate to help others.
“Islam teaches that humanity is one and we as humans are all connected,” said Arastu, a human services and sociology major. “When one person is suffering, everyone suffers a little and is obligated to help.”
He has focused much of his personal obligation to help needy elderly residents through Project C.A.R.E. (Community Action to Reach the Elderly) and his participation in AmeriCorps.
“Each one of the people I work with has a life of experiences that they would love to share,” he said.
As president of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Mitchell has organized many service projects in conjunction with organizations throughout D.C and encourages his brothers to volunteer.
Growing up in Atlanta, Mitchell is no stranger to the principles of King’s movement. His father, the Rev. Anthony Campbell, was a friend and colleague of King’s. He teaches at Boston and Oxford universities and is a role model for Mitchell.
“My father was jailed 64 times between 1956 and 1967,” Mitchell said. “His constant involvement in the community and interest in socioeconomic equality got me interested in those topics at a young age.”
Now preparing for entrance to law school, Mitchell said he finds himself revisiting his father’s ideas.
“Across racial and ethnic lines, most people in this country still want effective leadership that will take their concerns seriously,” said Mitchell, who is an international affairs and economics major. “But first people have to realize that they themselves are significant.”
Vivekanandan, a former intern for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, also is motivated by personal circumstances. Moving with her family to the United States from India when she was 2 years old, she said she is grateful for the opportunities she was afforded by this country.
She concentrates her efforts on helping immigrants settle into their new homes. Most recently, she worked with an Ethiopian family, integrating them into American culture and assisting them in job searches.
“I want everyone to have a chance to make a good life for themselves and their families in America,” she said.
Vivekanandan, an international affairs major, has coordinated campuswide events such as International Week and Religion Week. She also served as the co-coordinator of the Diversity Program Clearing House and has held a number of political internships. She plans to work in areas of post-conflict reconstruction.
“(King’s) vision of harmony between the races is something I have really worked toward through cross-cultural programming here,” she said. “We are a diverse campus, but there is still self-segregation.”
The medals will be presented at a convocation honoring King at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 21 in the Marvin Center’s Betts Theatre.