When Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrated a Mass in February at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., to mark Black History Month, Ihuaku Joseph, a member of Carroll’s class of 2020, assisted him as an altar server.

Joseph has been an altar server at her home parish, Nativity Catholic Church in Washington, since the fourth grade, and also served the altar at Masses when she was a student at St. Augustine Catholic School in the nation’s capital, and has continued to do that during her years at Archbishop Carroll.

“It’s more peaceful,” she said of being an altar server. “I just have a time with God when I’m up there.”

Her Catholic faith is central to the life of Joseph and to her family.

“I pray every day in the car with my family while we drive to school,” she said.

Her father Chukwuma Okorie works as a realtor, and her mother Chika Okorie works as a nurse with the elderly. Joseph, who is 17, has three younger siblings: her sister Chidinma Joseph who is in the ninth grade at Archbishop Carroll; her brother Chukwuma Joseph who is in the seventh grade at St. Augustine School; and her sister Chinecherem Joseph who is in the second grade at St. Augustine School.

Joseph’s parents are from Nigeria, and she and her sister Chidinma were born there before the family immigrated to the United States when she was young. Later, her two younger siblings were born here.

“Nigerians are very hardworking,” she said of her parents’ example, adding that she has worked hard in school, to be an example to her younger siblings, and also to make her parents proud of her.

This fall, Joseph will be a freshman at the University of Maryland in College Park, and she plans to major in electrical engineering and become the first member of her family to complete college.

“I would like to work for a company like Apple, Google or Microsoft,” she said. “I would like to be a part of making new devices or programs.”

Joseph, a 2016 graduate of St. Augustine Catholic School before entering Archbishop Carroll, praised her Catholic education.

St. Augustine Catholic School, she said, “was like a family household.” And of Archbishop Carroll, she added, “We’re also a family, too.”

Carroll “taught me the real world, and how I’m supposed to act, how to have pride in myself and love myself,” Joseph said, adding that the school emphasized the importance of going out in the world and loving and serving others.

At Archbishop Carroll, Joseph has been a leader in the school’s peer ministry program, setting up Masses and helping to organize other religious activities at the school like Bible studies, and encourage students to participate in them. In addition to being an altar server at school Masses, she has also served as a lector at liturgies there.

Joseph described her service in peer ministry as “trying to get other students to connect with God.”

Of her own Catholic faith, she said, “God has always been with me. I like to share my story with other people, so they can get closer to God.”

After Communion at Archbishop Carroll’s May 20 livestreamed Baccalaureate Mass celebrated by Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the school’s principal, Elana Gilmore, announced that Ihuaku Joseph is the 2020 recipient of the Archbishop’s Medal for Excellence given annually to a Carroll senior. Recipients of that honor receive a medallion and a $1,500 college scholarship.

Carroll’s principal praised Joseph for witnessing to her Catholic faith through her peer ministry leadership, by serving as an altar server and lector at school Masses, and by her community service there. 

“She embodies the joyful and dedicated spirit of a servant leader, and her example serves as inspiration to others. During her time at Carroll, Ihuaku has made an indelible mark on both her fellow students and the school culture,” Gilmore said. “…Her passion for the Catholic faith and dedication to serving God and her community makes Ihuaku uniquely worthy of receiving the Archbishop’s Medal of Excellence.”

Gilmore noted that Joseph often prays and draws strength from her favorite passage in Scripture, Psalm 23, which includes the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack. In green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters he leads me; he restores my soul. He guides me along right paths for the sake of his name.”

Joseph’s community service at Archbishop Carroll included joining fellow students in collecting food for the school’s Thanksgiving Food Drive, one of the largest such collections in the country. After sorting the tons of donated food, Carroll students personally deliver them to neighborhood families, so they have a nice meal for Thanksgiving.

“I just learned that it’s good to help people out. We could put a smile on somebody’s face,” she said, adding, “I like helping people out.”

She also joined Carroll students in serving at a soup kitchen at an area church, helping prepare the food, serve it, and then visit with and get to know some of the homeless people there. That experience taught her about the challenges that some people are facing, and “that everyone is the same, no matter if they’re struggling or not.”

Joseph added, “It’s nice to talk with them. They’re just like us.”

During her years at Carroll, Joseph also participated in the school’s Emerald Illusion dance team, serving as a captain and co-captain of the group, which performed at schools, talent shows and the Cherry Blossom Festival, with a repertoire that included ballet, hip-hop and contemporary dance.

This spring as Archbishop Carroll High School, like other schools, had to close its campus and transition to online learning for students due to government restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, Joseph like her fellow students had to attend classes and do schoolwork in a new way, which she said was challenging at first, but she adjusted to it.

As for her upcoming graduation as a member of Archbishop Carroll’s class of 2020, Joseph said, “I was excited from the beginning to graduate. I’m still excited for that day.”

The closeness she has felt with God serving the altar, in her family and at her parish and Catholic schools will remain a source of strength for her as she moves on to college and a career, Joseph said.

“Whenever I have a hard time in the future, I can turn to God so He can help me and guide me to the next step,” she said.

Ihuaku Joseph is a graduating senior this year at Archbishop Carroll High School, which is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington. (Photo courtesy of Archbishop Carroll High School)