Our 2023 scholarship season has come to a close. The applications we received absolutely blew us away and choosing our final 5 winners was harder than ever. We are constantly inspired by our scholarship applicants and the ways they better their communities.
Our 2024 scholarship is NOW LIVE. This means you can read the rules and submit a feedback form, as well as your final application (although, I would recommend holding off on your final application until the due date is closer!)
If you know of a graduating high school senior, would you please send them the link to our 2024 Build a Better Future Scholarship? All seniors deserve to know about this application and anyone sharing on their social media or through word of mouth always helps us reach those that need to see it.
As always, our email is open for any questions or feedback. Do not hesitate to reach out!
Meet Victor Caceres, one of our scholarship recipients. Victor is a graduating high school senior in the state of California that worked hard to renovate and build up his community food pantry. He writes,
“My community is very much a middle to lower-class community. The people are kind and for the most part helpful. At St. Bridget of Sweden Catholic church, the people at Martha’s Pantry needed help to restore their run-down food bank. The issue I observed was that the pantry was not properly equipped to help the community with the distribution of food and other products to families in need of it. A lack of refrigerators and shelving units left the pantry and its volunteers vulnerable to properly helping out the community. My project aimed to provide the equipment and make a better environment for the pantry through the cleaning, painting, and installation of refrigerators and shelving units to it. Apart from this, my project beautified the facility so it and the St. Bridget community can now enjoy and engage more with the community at large.”
Victor is very involved in his community and really enjoyed being able to give back to those that need it the most.
“Many people face hunger in the world. Los Angeles is no exception to this. The project’s main purpose was to renovate the rooms and install shelves for the pantry. In the big picture, the project will help the community by providing canned goods & non-perishable items for free to many of the less fortunate in the area. I believe my project will not only benefit the church community at St. Bridgets but many of the people who live in the Van Nuys area, especially the elderly who frequent Martha’s Pantry throughout the year for their goods. More than 200 people rely on the pantry per month and this number totals closer to 400 during the holidays.”
He set his sights high and worked to make the pantry a usable, happy space for everyone.
“The project is greatly needed as lately, the pantry has been suffering from a lack of donations. Simultaneously, the state of the building is getting worse. The community engagement needs to increase. Martha’s Pantry is a staple in our community. Although the volunteers are there, the current condition of the pantry impedes the amount of reach the pantry has. With my project, Martha’s Pantry is better than new and has helped over 200 people per month who rely on it for their food. My goal was to equip the pantry with all necessary equipment in the short run & in the long run. This along with the beautification of the pantry will have greater engagement and outreach with the community.”
Victor’s project is inspiring to all those that hear it. His dedication to not only Martha’s Pantry but to the community members that rely on the food pantry is incredible and a story worth sharing!
We’re also well on our way to bringing you the 2024 Build a Better Future scholarship! Once the updated scholarship has been successfully published and is live, we’ll let you know so that you can send the scholarship application to your favorite 2024 graduating high school senior.
Thank you to all of the 2023 scholarship winners for building a better future.
Meet our top scholarship recipient, Jalen Coleman. Not only did Jalen receive a $10,000 scholarship towards college tuition, but he also received a $5,000 grant for his organization Outside J’s Sunday Fundays. Jalen saw a need within the parks and rec department within his city and worked hand in hand with them to bring new basketball courts and tournaments to their community. He writes,
“The game of basketball belongs to everyone. If you have a ball and a hoop, you have a game. Unfortunately, the sport of basketball for kids has been privatized and commercialized into a pay-for-play model, where travel, cost, and fees are required before kids ever get to see the ball go through the basket. This has created a demand for gym space, coaches, players, playing time, and winning which has caused the stakes to rise, and the culture of sports to become hyper-competitive. I seek to return the game to its roots. We invite all skill levels, youth ages, and genders to play at newly refurbished courts for FREE. Outside J allows all who want to hoop, the ability to hoop without the hyper-competitive, money-driven baggage that comes with sports.”
Jalen worked to inspire many in his community. During a phone interview we held with him he spoke of his passion for the game and for creating an inclusive environment for everyone to be a part of. He commented that his least favorite part was the work it took to take everything down and clean up, but it was always all worth it to watch the entire event come together and see everyone having a good time. Jalen also writes,
“I am a lover of the game of basketball, and I REALLY like playing pickup basketball at outdoor basketball courts. I realize that in this technology-based, travel sports era, that many youths are not participating in sports in a free-play environment. Travel sports requires money, time, transportation, and fees that eliminates a lot of the youth that need to play the most. I decided to combine my love for sports, and my love for community, by creating Outside J, during the Covid-19 Lockdown. I connected with my city parks and rec department, my local schools and churches, to create a website, and prepare for quarterly events that are FREE for youth in our community.”
Our team at HonorsGradU has been so impressed with Jalen and his commitment to helping his city for the better. Jalen has more free events he’s working on in the future and plans to attend college in the fall as well.
Meet Gitanjali Rao, a researcher, innovator, inventor, and teacher. Gitanjali has been given opportunities to spend time on STEM projects but recognized that not all students have this opportunity, so she set out to change this by creating an outreach program and writing and publishing a book in hopes of “finding the hundreds of other Gitanjali’s out there” as she puts it. She writes,
“Today’s education around the world focuses on core skills but doesn’t train students in connecting concepts across disciplines, ideation, and solutions, critical skills that are needed to solve problems of tomorrow. I have found through my experience, children in schools, when trained right, explore ideas better and are not bound by constraints. Also, many of today’s problems, from climate change to privacy, are going to directly affect children when they grow up. It is only logical that they are part of the solution. Hence, I’d like to develop a K-12 curriculum that simplifies the methods and tools of ideation, with the right reward system, so that innovation becomes a learning experience and students can be free to imagine solutions for today’s urgent problems. I see a need to create an innovation movement among school students across the globe, where ideation, innovation, and problem-solving are not limited to science fairs and privileged schools, but are a part of the regular curriculum. I have covered some distance in my journey, but still have a long path ahead, as I build my own skills in research and problem-solving.”
Gitanjali saw a problem not only in her community, but around our globe, and has taken it upon herself to make a change.
“My work broadly involves 2 main areas, research/innovation, & educational outreach. They are symbiotic and complement each other to achieve the end goal of developing my solution. Within my research initiative, I have developed a few products such as a patented lead detection in water, early diagnosis of prescription opioid addiction, and launched an anti-cyberbullying technology service in partnership with UNICEF. While working on these, I developed a process to take a solution from an idea to reality, that is proven and repeatable. In the spirit of developing a community of innovators, I started sharing this with my community peers and received excellent feedback. A peer student-led session proved to be effective in environments across the globe. The workshop supplemented any efforts to introduce innovation and social empathy earlier in a student’s education. I started with 10-12 students and slowly expanded it to 300 students per session. Today I conduct about 3-5 sessions a week with about 200 students weekly. I take feedback on them and have been continuously improving the interactive nature of the sessions so that at the end of it, the students have an idea, solution, and a process with them to refine on their own.”
Gitanjali is building a better future before our own eyes, and bringing others along with her to do the same. We were honored to name her one of our 2023 Build a Better Future Scholarship recipients and we are excited to see where her future endeavors take her.
Meet two of our scholarship recipients, Esther Lau and Fiona Lu. Esther and Fiona live in California and have become advocates for low-income families in need of menstrual products with their project What We All Deserve. Their mission was to give families the ability to purchase menstrual products using SNAP benefits. Both girls come from low-income families that have relied on state services in some capacity, so this bill was very personal and important to them. They write,
“CA’s SB 260, the Menstrual Equity Act of 2023, is What We All Deserve’s first legislative advocacy initiative. If passed, the bill will add $20 in monthly cash assistance for each menstruating CalWORKs recipient. From its ideation to current standing in the CA Legislature, we’ve spearheaded its efforts, gathering support from 12 co-authors, endorsements from the CA Women’s Caucus and Senate Democrats, 13 co-sponsors, and 50+ supporting organizations.”
“Our project has successfully sponsored SB 260 into the California Legislature. SB 260 is currently being voted on in the Senate and has already passed the Senate Human Services, Governmental Organization, and Appropriations committees. Soon, it will head through the Assembly and go through the parallel review process, and eventually be signed into law. We’ve already gained robust legislative support with 12 co-authors across the Senate and Assembly, as well as endorsements from the CA Women’s Caucus and the Senate Democrats Budget Plan. We’ve also rallied strong organizational support with 13 co-sponsors (ex: PERIOD., IGNITE National, URGE) and 50+ supporting organizations (ex: ACLU, NARAL).”
Not only are these girls spending their time working towards passing this legislation, but they’re also involving the community as much as possible, making their project spread and influence as much as possible.
“What We All Deserve is working to engage the communities most affected by economic inequalities in the fight for economic justice. For example, while recruiting for other youth advocates, we hope to particularly highlight other low-income youth who have directly been affected by social welfare programs and other economic gaps in opportunity. By doing this, we hope to empower underserved communities simultaneously while advocating for progressive economic policy.”
Not only have they worked on SB 260, but they’ve also been actively involved in California’s education policies and they’ve worked on student-written and led policies.
In an interview held with Fiona and Esther, they both commented on how real imposter syndrome has been during this entire process. They often questioned whether or not they were qualified to do this work. But they both agreed that the hard work pays off when they were able to meet those that the bill would impact and hearing individuals testify why the bill would be beneficial in their state.
Our team at Honors GradU loved reading more about Esther and Fiona’s work in the community and state. They inspired us by their work and we are honored to have them as our 2023 scholarship recipients.
Meet one of our scholarship winners, Austin Picinich. Austin resides in the state of Washington and has been utilizing “the power of public art” to educate, promote, and bring the community together.
“I realized that public art – when combined with a community-focused purpose – could have a much larger impact and inspire others to make a difference. My simple idea grew into a big idea: using my love of art to educate, excite, and engage my community in restoring Juanita Creek. The “Save Our Salmon Mural” was born.”
Austin has worked hand in hand with Urban ArtWorks and North Lake Washington SalmonWatchers to plan and carry out the project of painting multiple murals throughout his community. Austin designed these murals himself, he’s been interested in art from a young age and found an excellent way to connect his love of art, help out the local fauna, and bring the community together in the process. He writes,
“I began sharing my “Save Our Salmon” idea in the Juanita community. I interviewed students, stewards, and neighbors. I spoke with long-time residents who remembered Juanita Creek 50 years ago, describing when salmon “painted the stream red” – and to those who, like me, were previously unaware of Juanita Creek. However, no one knew how they could be part of the solution. While talking with my community, I was introduced to a neighbor who happened to be a “SalmonWatcher” for Juanita Creek. They connected me with Dr. Jeff Jensen, a University of Washington biology professor who teaches a salmon-themed class at UW each fall. Dr. Jensen is the founder of North Lake Washington SalmonWatchers, a volunteer group of students building egg boxes and incubators in Lake Washington’s streams, including Juanita Creek.”
“Although there are local groups like SalmonWatchers that focus on salmon sustainability, efforts have little emphasis on driving awareness among everyday community members. The “SalmonWatchers” team was composed of only a dozen UW students. Because I had been ‘one of those people’ who were once unaware of Juanita Creek, I realized greater community engagement was necessary. I sought to educate everyday residents how they could help restore Juanita Creek too.”
Austin’s project was never about just him as an artist. It was always deeply rooted in helping Juanita Creek, the salmon that call it home, and the community surrounding it.
“While I might be able to paint a mural by myself, the real power of the “Save Our Salmon Mural” came from engaging community members. My goal was to not just create a mural that’s nice to look at – but a mural that teaches my community to protect salmon, and engages my community in creating it. I truly wanted to involve the entire community. I spoke at Kirkland City Council, Kirkland Cultural Arts Commission, Juanita Neighborhood Association, Kiwanis, and Rotary clubs to rally support. In total, I brought together over 20 community groups for my Juanita Creek SOS Mural.”
“I developed a unique “Community Paint Day” format that was interactive and educational. I first designed, outlined, and color-coded my salmon-themed design onto the blank wall in advance. Then, in April 2022, I hosted a Community Paint Day leading 170+ volunteers, ages 4 to 74, to “paint-by-number” my design – transforming the 112-foot wall into a vibrant mural. I also integrated an educational aspect into the Community Paint Day by partnering with Dr. Jeff Jensen and North Lake Washington SalmonWatchers. NLWSW provided onsite docents educating our 400 community attendees, and many attendees signed up as SalmonWatchers during the event.”
Austin has completed three total murals with the fourth coming this July. Over 350 volunteers will be helping complete the mural.
In an interview Austin stated,
“Putting in the work to plan for so many community members to help is challenging. There are a lot of permits we have to work on getting from the city for various things and many other things to plan for, it can take up to six months just to put the event together. I could paint the mural myself to avoid this work, but seeing community members connect with the mural and come together to accomplish the final product is more than worth it. I love that these volunteers are able to drive by the mural every day and say, “Hey! I helped paint that salmon’s tail!”
Austin will be attending the University of Washington in the fall and plans to continue his work with the Save Our Salmon initiative. He plans to major in marketing, which he will use directly to market the merchandise he designs and sells where 100% of the proceeds are donated directly to SalmonWatchers. The stickers, magnets, t-shirts, etc. can be found in local Washington gift shops and on his online Etsy shop.
Our team at HonorsGradU was blown away by Austin’s selflessness when he noticed a problem in his community and worked hard to make a change. He is literally building a better future for the Juanita community and we are honored to consider him a 2023 scholarship recipient.