Lehman Student Recognized with $2,500 Race Unity Award

Share on
An older man with white hair wearing a suit presents an award to a tall, young man with curly hair.
Moujan Vahdat congratulates Matthew Garaicoa. (Photo: Hiram Alejandro Durán)

In December, sophomore Matthew Garaicoa was notified that he was receiving the inaugural Race Unity Award, a $2,500 prize established by New York City philanthropist Moujan Vahdat, founder of Elmo Realty Co. It was exciting news, although unexpected—because he hadn’t applied for any awards.

Garaicoa later learned that the nomination was submitted by two of his professors, Alyshia Gálvez and Stephanie Rupp, who were blown away by his scholarship on race and social inequality in a course they co-taught last fall.

Vahdat created the Race Unity Award to encourage and highlight local college students working to combat racism, which he feels is the country’s most pressing issue. For this most recent venture in his 30-year career of social justice philanthropy, he received over 100 nominations from faculty at colleges across the city.

“From his schoolwork, his extracurricular activities, and innovative projects benefiting his local community, Matthew’s nomination stood out from the rest,” said Vahdat. “He displays a passion and sets the bar of how we can achieve racial equality.”

Garaicoa said he was “happy, proud, and excited,” to be honored, adding that the award “was incredible, because it was a bit of acknowledgment for the hard work I’ve been doing here at Lehman.”

His hard work, as Vahdat noted, has extended beyond academic work into self-directed projects—all of which contributed to his nomination.

During the spring of 2022, Garaicoa co-wrote and performed in ¡Pa'lante!, a play addressing racism and social inequality inspired by the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer of 2020. The experience was so powerful that he switched his major from sociology to theatre. This foray into acting also opened a door to other types of activism.

Inspired by the course he took with Gálvez and Rupp, Garaicoa spearheaded a collaboration between the Lehman Lab for Social Analysis, where he is a research intern, and the New York Botanical Garden to develop an ethnographic survey of local foodways. The project is designed to amplify the voices of underrepresented Bronx residents—highlighting the history, shared knowledge, and cultural richness of the borough’s communities.

The Race Unity Award will generate additional opportunities, Garaicoa said. While some of the money will go toward expenses at Lehman, he plans to use another portion for a program to develop his craft as a playwright.

“I’m hoping to continue writing and performing plays that address injustice,” he said. “And by furthering my education in the history of racial inequality in the United States, I can better advocate for racial unity here at Lehman College.”