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Serena Cho

Year of Graduation: 
Serena in the Academy Center lobby.

"My identity is so much more realized now, and I feel proud of who I am."

For her activism on behalf of racial and social justice, Serena Cho ’17 was named a Distinguished Finalist in Massachusetts for a 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Award, granted annually to the nations’ top youth volunteers. A few days later she also received a President’s Volunteer Service Award from the office of President Barack Obama. She calls both honors “totally unexpected,” yet this Exonian has embodied non sibi throughout her time here.

Like so many other students, Cho learned the value of service through her involvement in Exeter Student Service Organization. As a member of clubs such as Tutoring for Children, ESSO Squash and Gal Pals during her prep and lower years, Cho formed relationships with area children that made her ESSO experience among her happiest and most meaningful at Exeter. “I was humbled by the changes I could make,” she says, “and I began actively searching for outlets through which I could make a difference in others’ lives.”

But it was a keynote address by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson that awakened her passion for racial and social justice and gave her the resolve to “tackle the injustices of the world,” Cho says. Stevenson, who spoke during Exeter’s 2015 MLK Day, is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, a nonprofit organization that advocates for prison reform and an end to mass incarceration and the death penalty. Cho says she was transfixed by Stevenson’s talk about the racism inherent in America’s criminal justice system and “moved by his resolve to fight for equal justice.”

Wanting to learn more, Cho applied for a fellowship through the Student Council and spent the following summer traveling the country — from Boston to Chicago, San Francisco and Montgomery — to interview ex-prisoners, lawyers, judges, professors and social workers. An interview with a man who had spent 26 years in prison for manslaughter was transformative for her. “The idea of talking to him scared me at first, but by the end of the interview, we were both in tears as he spoke about his experience in the prison system, the circumstances that led to his crime, and his rehabilitation process,” she recalls.

By the end of the summer, Cho had compiled 14 interviews and seen a significant shift in her worldview. “I was very sheltered as a child,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about activism, race or social justice.” Based on her interviews, Cho produced an hour-long documentary about the intersection of racism and mass incarceration in America. One year after Bryan Stevenson’s speech, she had the opportunity to screen her film, In the Trenches: Race and Incarceration in the American Justice System, during Exeter’s 2016 MLK Day.

Since then, Cho has interned with the American Civil Liberties Union; helped produce a radio show with a professor from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice; examined themes of race and gender through film at the Telluride Association Summer Program; and worked with the nonprofit group Boston Mobilization to help organize campaigns, lobby legislators and develop a curriculum on mass incarceration.

—Genny Beckman Moriarty

Editor's note: This profile first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.