Sitting Down With Senator Cory Booker

Debate Team hosts virtual assembly with NVOT alum Senator Cory Booker


Siena Griffin

Seniors Tiffany Cowan, Daniel Kim, and Amy Tony and juniors Tala Areiqat, Ace Kim, and Ava Petrilli with Dr. Bruce Sabatini, Advisor Katie Gallagher, and Senator Cory Booker.

Senator Cory Booker returned virtually to his high school alma mater on Friday, June 11 for a question and answer session hosted by the Debate Team. Booker, who graduated from NVOT in 1987, was elected mayor of Newark in 2006 before serving as a United States Senator for New Jersey, a position he has held since 2013. 

Led by adviser Katie Gallagher, six debate team officers acted as student panelists while the rest of the school watched the assembly live via Zoom Webinar. Panelists prepared questions for Booker about “his personal experiences and his journey from Harrington Park to Congress,” said Assistant Principal Luisella Marolda. 

According to Marolda, the assembly was originally intended only for classes and clubs with the “strongest curricular ties” to hearing the senator speak. This included classes such as AP U.S. Government, Journalism, and Speech and Debate, as well as the Debate Team and Student Senate. However, administration wanted to expand the event to a wider audience, eventually coming to an agreement with Booker’s team to make a livestream available to the whole school. The auditorium opened during lunch for students and staff to watch the stream together, and fifth-period teachers had the option to tune in with their classes. 

“It’s not every day you get to meet a U.S. Senator, and it’s even less likely that you get to meet one who attended the same high school as you,” said senior Tiffany Cowan, who raised the idea for the assembly with her fellow Debate Team officers and administration. 

She added, “The event has been in the works since February, but with Senator Booker’s busy schedule and this year’s crazy AP exam season, for the longest time we weren’t too sure it was going to happen!” Cowan attributes the assembly’s success to collaboration between “the Debate Team, school administration, and the Senator’s office.” 

On the livestream, Booker talked about his upbringing in Harrington Park as one of the town’s few black residents and NVOT’s few black students. Through it all, Booker emphasized the school’s role in building the foundations for his success. “I am who I am in every way because of the incredible Old Tappan community,” he said. Describing his senior year as one of the “most memorable 365-day periods of his life,” Booker recounted his race for senior class president, displaying an early interest in the career he would go on to pursue. 

Booker speaking over Zoom. (Siena Griffin)

Booker spoke about his time as mayor of Newark and his current position representing New Jersey in the U.S. Senate. He stressed the importance of serving the communities that have served him, encouraging students to “be the change you want to see in the world.” He noted that collaboration is the key to creating a positive impact, even when working with people who hold different beliefs. “[We] cannot beat darkness with more darkness,” Booker stated. 

Marolda hopes that “students walked away from the assembly having an understanding that being kind to one another has a ripple effect, [and] that speaking to people and listening is more important now than ever.”

The assembly profoundly impacted senior Kamil Mouehla, who described Booker as one of his idols. “Being relatively new in the world of sociopolitical activism, his words had a greater level of depth [for me] compared to others watching,” said Mouehla, who is currently pushing to establish a Black Student Union at NVOT. He continued, “Hopefully I get to, one day, sit down and talk to him about expanding activism to broader contexts or how we could rectify and change this corrupt system to ensure that there is, indeed, justice.” 

Booker thanked panelists and viewers for welcoming him back into “the exclusive club that is Northern Valley.” He concluded the meeting with some words of wisdom that motivated him to pursue a career in politics: “Recognize your blessings: You can’t pay them back, but you can pay them forward.”