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Nikki Iriza finds comfort and joy through singing

Having been through more upheaval and heartache than your average teen, 17-year-old Nicole Iriza of Westbrook knows firsthand how important it is to have an outlet.

It could explain some of her drive to lead CivilTEA, a movement at Maine Girls’ Academy, from which she just graduated, that allows students to say what’s on their minds, resolve disputes and discuss sometimes-difficult subjects like race and identity in civil ways.

“It’s been very important to me. I’m very connected to social justice, and since I’m an immigrant, so many issues are relevant to me,” says Iriza, who was born in Rwanda and moved to Maine five years ago. “It’s been the perfect way to get my voice out and share my knowledge.”

Between the ages of 5 and 12, Iriza says she desperately missed her mother, who had moved to the United States expecting her husband and five children to follow much sooner than they ultimately could. Iriza “got her voice out” then and comforted herself by singing Gospel songs she learned in church.

Nikki Iriza has a passion and talent for singing. She also helps her peers talk through disputes as a CivilTEA facilitator at Maine Girls Academy. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

The need to let go of upset and express herself deepened when she went to boarding school at age 10 and missed all of her family. “When I first started singing, I’d say that it was trying to find a way not to break. Singing kept me together,” she says.

When she arrived in Maine, she was overjoyed to reunite with her mother, but Iriza’s inner struggles intensified, as she felt misplaced in seventh grade in a foreign place.

“I felt in the wrong place, and I said I would do whatever it takes to go to high school. So I took a lot of tests and was able to skip eighth grade” and go to McAuley High School, now Maine Girls’ Academy.

Once again, singing helped her through that transition.

“When I moved here, I felt really alone, in a bubble. I’d sing to myself, wanting to find myself, my inner self,” she says. “And then I started going to the Church of God on Park Avenue and heard the choir singing. I asked about singing in the kids’ choir but there wasn’t one. So I sang for them, and they let me join their group, even though I wasn’t baptized in the church. They were all older than me, but I loved it. It felt like family, and it led me to a more spiritual place.”

Her involvement in that choir also led to her joining an all-Gospel group of young people from different churches and countries called Young Believers of Christ, which performs at various venues around the state. She’s one of the leaders of the group now and writes lyrics and aspires to sing professionally.

Another expansion of her thinking came three years ago when Iriza attended Seeds of Peace camp in Maine. It led her to become a facilitator with CivilTEA, which her best friend had just started. (It got its name because, when people gather together for tea, it’s always nice and civilized, explains Iriza.)

With help from a Seeds of Peace coordinator and the school’s blessing, Iriza and her fellow facilitators led several students-only discussions that year. At first, some students were reluctant to give up their study halls and get involved, but interest steadily grew.

The mere fact that discussions are happening is a good thing, even when students disagree or can’t find common ground on issues, Iriza says. “I’ve seen a lot of girls working through ideas. Even if they don’t understand or feel upset, they’re still talking about it.”

Her school helped encourage dialogue this year by incorporating CivilTEA meetings into the school year, explains Amy Jolly, head of school, who calls Iriza an admirable student leader.

“CivilTEA has been incredibly valuable in helping to set our school’s tone,” Jolly says. “And in helping our girls realize you can be who you are and speak your mind. We’re not trying to change anyone’s mind, we’re just trying to foster a conversation. And that’s so important because we’re never going to understand one another if we can’t talk to one another.”

Iriza says she’d like to explore the possibility of introducing CivilTea at Wheaton College, when she joins its freshman class in August. In the meantime, she continues to work at Panera Bread raising money for school, as well as finding joy through singing.

“When we had our YBOC concert at Waynflete (in April), I had a solo, and a woman came up to me after and said that when she heard me singing it was the happiest she’d felt all year! That made me feel like I could help other people through my singing.”

Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

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