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Saugus High graduate Crystal Kembo discusses her scholastic success and her parents’ journey from Cameroon to America to obtain her higher education

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  Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we interviewed Crystal Fosung Kembo, an Honors Graduate in the Saugus High School Class of 2022. She was born in Cameroon, a country in west-central Africa on the Gulf of Guinea. Her parents – Jean-Martin and Linda Kembo – decided to immigrate to America to provide her with the best opportunity of obtaining higher education. Her family eventually settled in Saugus, where her parents bought a home. Crystal attended Saugus Public Schools and achieved the scholastic level of a top-10 student. She plans to attend Brown University next fall, where she will study International and Public Affairs. Her 16-year-old sister, Maeva Kembo, is currently a junior at Saugus High School. Crystal describes her sister as “an amazing student leader” who is also a very good student. At the recent Senior Awards Night, Crystal received five local scholarships: an Essex Agricultural Society Scholarship provided by the Topsfield Fair, the Kowloon Restaurant Scholarship, the Saugus Boosters Club Inc. Scholarship, the Saugus High School Alumni Association DeMasi O’Leary Scholarship and the Saugus High School Foundation Award for Outstanding Character.

  See below for this week’s interview.

  Q: First of all, feel free to share your educational background. You attended Saugus Public Schools, grades K-12. And please highlight your major accomplishments, especially your senior year.

  A: As a recent graduate of Saugus High School, I’m a proud first generation college student. I finished top 10 in my class and took various advanced placement and honors courses through my high school’s Advanced Academy. I’ve played field hockey for six years and have been an avid member of my school’s drama community for seven years.

  Some of my most prized extracurriculars include captaining the SHS improv troupe and acting as a leader within my school’s Young Feminist Alliance. Upon working with the Saugus School Committee, we recently succeeded in reforming the Saugus Middle High School’s dress code. I especially value community service as a National Honor Society member and have been a peer mentor at various points throughout high school.

  I’ve received recognition through book awards provided during my junior year by the University of Rochester and Brandeis University, for my social justice work and volunteerism. As a senior I received an award for my excellence in English, was named a North Shore Chamber of Commerce Honors Scholar and have been competitively selected into the Ron Brown Leaders Network. Finally, I’m proud to say that I’ve been accepted into Brown University’s class of 2026 where I’ll be studying international and public affairs this fall.

  Q: You said you were born in Cameroon. At what age did you and your family immigrate to the U.S.? And please tell me a little bit about your mom and dad. The town street list notes they are both nurses, and the town records show they bought a 1904-vintage home on Newhall Street in Saugus, so your parents and their daughters are definitely living the American Dream.

  A: My parents and I immigrated to the U.S. in the year 2004, when I was 10 months old. When we got here, my parents took up jobs as direct support staff at group homes and eventually worked their way up to becoming nurses. In 2007, they bought a home in Saugus where we currently live. My parents are extremely hardworking and greatly value their job as caregivers. Especially in the peak of the pandemic, they remained diligent and compassionate as essential care workers. I greatly admire them and the love they hold towards myself and my sister.

  Q: You mentioned in your first email “My parents emigrated to the United States to provide me with the best chance of obtaining higher education.” What city did they first enter, and then how and why did their journey take them to Saugus? Did they have relatives or friends who were familiar with the town? How old were you when you arrived in Saugus?

  A: I was about four years old when my family moved to Saugus. Upon entering the U.S. my parents first settled in the city of Malden. A few years later, they decided that they wanted to own a home. This pursuit led them to Saugus, where they had no personal connections. Despite this, my parents took a liking to the peaceful nature of the town and have found comfort in it since then.

  Q: Has the town been welcoming to you and your family? How has it been growing up in Saugus?

  A: Having grown up in a less diverse Saugus than we have today, I rarely saw my own experience as a woman of color be represented. Still, I found ways to be a part of the community at large. It’s through the Saugus fine arts department that I learned to be bold and expressive. It’s through Saugus athletics that I learned to be more collaborative as a team player. It’s through my peers that I learned the value of advocating for myself and my beliefs. Even with the obstacles I’ve faced growing up in Saugus, I will always cherish those lessons that have made me who I am.

  Q: You are a product of the Saugus Public Schools and have clearly achieved academic excellence by finishing as a top 10 student and getting accepted into an Ivy League School. How would you rate the education system of Saugus? What were the best parts? What are the deficiencies and what were the challenges? What were the obstacles you had to overcome to succeed? How many hours a day did you devote to your homework and studies? What is your favorite subject? How many books do you read a year? And how many languages do you speak?

  A: I believe the education system of Saugus is what you make of it. I’ve had some really amazing teachers and have formed genuine connections with them over time. In my more rigorous Honors and AP courses, there were many times when I felt challenged for the better. A flaw that comes to mind would be the lack of attention towards unmotivated students. As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Unlike other schools who may push for a collective sense of academic excellence, students at Saugus schools are more scattered when it comes to their education. There are many students like myself who greatly value scholastic activities, but there are just as many students – if not more – who don’t care. Students in honors and advanced courses are at times prioritized over those in base level courses. This often lowers the morale of unmotivated students. If the school ignited a sense of passion and curiosity among all students, the collective education system of Saugus would be strengthened. In order to succeed, I had to learn how to overcome feelings of doubt due to the lack of opportunities at my school. Whereas, other schools had more access to numerous AP classes and internship opportunities, Saugus High didn’t have as many resources. I had to stop comparing my education to that of others, and make the best of the resources I had. My time devoted to homework and studies varied depending on the difficulty of the class. Still, I always tried to make time for myself and my loved ones.

  My favorite subject has always been English. Every year, my classes would read many novels, poems, and short stories. In my AP Literature course, we read about seven novels with some of my favorites being “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. As of now I am only fluent in English, but I plan on learning many more languages during my time at Brown.

  Q: Looking back on your education, who was your favorite teacher? And what made that teacher special?

  A: Among the many amazing teachers that I’ve encountered thus far in my education, I’m especially proud to have had the pleasure of being taught by Mrs. McVoy. I was lucky enough to be in her Honors Latin courses from freshman year to senior year, and in that time she fostered a strong sense of community amongst all her students. We were pushed to not only master the rigorous material, but also to form meaningful connections between the ancient language of the Romans and our modern world. From the minute I stepped into her classroom, I knew I would be welcomed, represented, and heard. Whether it was through altering lesson plans in the best interest of her students or taking initiative to find inclusive Latin novellas for us to translate, Mrs. McVoy was so evidently passionate about her students’ overall growth and wellbeing. Her ability to bring out the best in her students helped many, including myself, to become more open-minded as young adults preparing for life beyond high school.

  Q: Do you feel that Saugus Public Schools provides a welcoming and nurturing learning environment for students of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds? Has the School Department done enough to ensure that students of all races and creeds have an equal opportunity? If not, feel free to share your concerns.

  A: When I was growing up, Saugus Public Schools were nowhere as diverse as they are now. I remember being the only person of color in many of my classes up until around 8th grade. Now as I depart, I’m thrilled to see that Saugus is slowly but surely becoming more diverse. Still, this is a predominantly white town which makes it very easy for students of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds to feel underrepresented at times.

  When I was younger one of my favorite places at the Veterans Memorial Elementary School was the library. I would go through multiple books a day, enamored by various characters and plots. But as I went through these books, I realized that very few of them reflected my culture, ethnicity, or experience as a young black girl. Looking back, I truly wish I could’ve seen myself being represented more within my learning environment. Though it may seem minuscule in comparison to the concept of diversity at large, there’s great value in implementing inclusivity wherever it can be applied. That’s why I’m so proud to see student-led groups at Saugus High School such as Peer Mediation take action. In the past year, their group has read diverse books to the elementary kids and have made efforts to educate the Saugus community on themes of racism, prejudice, stereotyping, etc. Even so, there’s much more that the School Department can do to help students of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds feel supported in their learning environment. Something as simple as having flags showcasing students’ countries of origin could automatically make any student feel more valued as a member of the community. I believe that as long as the School Department is willing to actively promote diversity and inclusion, Saugus Public Schools will be able to better accommodate all students.

  Q: All things considered, what do you credit for your scholastic achievements and growth as a student?

  A: Though my time at Saugus Public Schools has taught me many valuable lessons, there are some characteristics of myself that can only be attributed to the support of my family. I credit my mother for always pushing me to be driven and curious in my pursuit for knowledge. I credit my father for instilling the confidence that I needed to gain acceptance into an Ivy league school. Finally, I credit my younger sister for providing me with fun and laughter even in the most stressful periods of my education. It’s my family that inspires me to work towards being the best student that I can be.

  Q: Please tell me about your volunteer work, in the schools and in the community.

  A: I’ve volunteered at neighborhood block parties such as a 4th of July celebration that was held at the Lynnhurst Elementary School in 2019. I helped to oversee different games for the kids like bike races, watermelon eating contests, tug of war, etc.

  I also volunteered for the middle school drama club for about 3 years. My goal as a high school mentor was to aid with their productions, form meaningful connections with the kids, and help shape them into confident participants of the theater community.

  I’ve volunteered at founders day nearly every year either as a face painter or by overseeing the inflatable play area. I also provided free child care for some essential workers at the peak of the pandemic. It was difficult for some of these parents to find flexible childcare. Being in remote learning allowed me to have time to begin providing free childcare while their parents worked diligently.

  Just this year, I have (through National Honor Society) volunteered to bag food for the organization Healthy Students Healthy Saugus which honorably works to combat food insecurity in our town.

  Finally, I’m a letter writer for The Letter Project which is an online organization which sends empowering letters to women around the world. As a volunteer, I write letters to women between the ages of 5-40 just offering words of affirmation. My letters are included in a bundle of about 20 others, which are then given to the recipient.

  Q: What makes Saugus Public Schools so special that any student can receive a quality education?

  A: Saugus Public Schools are filled with teachers who care about the personal and academic growth of their students. There are some truly passionate individuals who are able to pass their love for their fields onto any student willing to receive knowledge.

  There is also a community for everyone whether you’re more in tune with academics, athletics, the arts, social justice, or anything else.

  Q: And, how does it feel to be a First Generation College Student?

  Being a first generation college student is extremely challenging, but even more rewarding. The college admissions process is daunting enough on its own and when you’re the first one in your family to undergo it, you may feel discouraged at times.

  However, with help from counselors and teachers it becomes easier to navigate the process. Despite the difficult journey, the joy of gaining acceptance into college makes everything worth it. Today, I feel triumphant knowing that I’m making my family proud by being the first one to attend university.

  Q: What is your greatest passion in life and what is your career objective?

  A: My greatest passion in life is that of seeking knowledge and being able to understand the experiences of others. I’ve always had a strong appreciation for various cultures whether it may be through languages, dance, food, etc. I find beauty in diversity and seek to travel the world and familiarize myself with the issues plaguing other nations. In studying international and public affairs at Brown University, I aspire to elevate my passion for human rights advocacy. From championing for the equal education of young girls to combating socioeconomic inequalities, I aim to work towards creating proper solutions for varying global issues.

  Q: Feel free to share your views on anything else that we didn’t cover. What would you like readers to know about you and your journey from Cameroon to Saugus, through 13 years in the Saugus Public Schools and now, onto Brown University?

  A: People are often quick to create a strong correlation between the school you attend, and a student’s acceptance into top colleges. I used to believe that as well, however I’ve come to realize how false that idea can be. Students are more than their gpa, class rank, or test scores. As an individual, I pride myself on my curiosity and hunger for knowledge. In my time in the Saugus Public School system there have been many setbacks, but even more lessons. Now as I head to Brown University, I’ve embraced the complexity of my diverse background and aspire to enact change beyond distant borders.

THAT_S MY DAUGHTER Linda Kembo, beams a smile of pride at last Friday night_s Saugus High graduation ceremony, as she adjusts the hat of her daughter, Crystal Fosung Kembo, one of the new graduates
THAT’S MY DAUGHTER Linda Kembo, beams a smile of pride at last Friday night’s Saugus High graduation ceremony, as she adjusts the hat of her daughter, Crystal Fosung Kembo, one of the new graduates. A top of Crystal’s mortarboard is a facsimile of the flag of Cameroon, the African country where she was born (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate)
college bound
COLLEGE BOUND: Crystal Fosung Kembo is one of 63 Saugus High School graduates from the Class of 2022 to be First Generation College Students. Her parents, Jean-Martin and Linda Kembo, immigrated to America from Cameroon when she was 10 months old to provide her the best opportunity for higher education. She will be headed to Brown University in the fall to study International and Public Affairs. (Saugus Advocate photo by Mark E. Vogler)

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