Jack Voelker All Latitudes Lacrosse: Our 2024 Scholarship Winner

Our top Build a Better Future Scholarship winner for 2024 was Jack Voelker. Being the top winner means that he also received a $5,000 grant to further the work of his project in addition to a $10,000 college scholarship. 

In Jack’s version of building a better future, he started with a simple observation while visiting Croatia. He writes, 

“I am a dual Croatian-American citizen, and my family and I regularly go there to visit relatives. Being an avid lacrosse player, I went to a local scrimmage. This would have been the end of my experience but for one observation that led to one question that led to a mission: I noticed that as each player ran off the field, he would hand the substitute his sweaty helmet to wear. This repeated several times. I asked a player on the sideline if his teammates had forgotten their helmets. He said no—they didn’t have enough for everyone because they were expensive. My mind flashed to the new helmets we received every year for our club team and piles of perfectly good “last year’s” helmets collecting dust in garages all over Long Island. The next year, I returned with a dozen donated helmets and was met with deep appreciation. In subsequent summers, I would bring as much donated equipment as I could. Word spread through the small international lacrosse community about the American kid helping in Croatia, and other developing programs reached out. My response was to found All Latitudes Lacrosse (ALL), a nonprofit dedicated to growing the sport globally.”

His love for the game and for the people ran deep, so he knew he needed to make a difference. Once he made the initial jump to donating supplies he was able to connect with more and more people and organizations to help him further his project. 

“I have created All Latitudes Lacrosse, to connect donated lacrosse equipment from my community on Long Island with developing programs around the world. Here in the United States, most equipment gets discarded after the purchaser no longer needs it. Thus, the solution to inaccessibility to equipment around the world was connecting the equipment that is outgrown or no longer used here, with where it is needed. However, doing so was difficult, as simply shipping the equipment is expensive. The biggest challenge was finding low-cost or even free ways to get 2 teams’ worth of gear to each of the programs that I helped. Therefore, I had to “get creative.” In one case, I partnered with a safari company headquartered in New York City to get the equipment to Nairobi.”

On top of donating equipment and supplies to these communities across the globe, Jack has also been able to create connections with the players and get to know them even better. He told us about his experience, 

“The project was effective in its ability to reach such a wide variety of programs around the world. For example, at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championship in Netanya, Israel, I connected donated lacrosse equipment from my community with a local youth program. While there, I ran a clinic, in which I taught the local children how to play lacrosse. Despite a language barrier, I experienced a deep connection with these children through the sport. In 2022, I connected donated equipment with a youth program in Ghana. During the Wildfire Lacrosse Festival (a celebration of the inauguration of this lacrosse program), I spoke with the children via video call. I spoke about my experiences, balancing school with sports, and how sports can make you a better student. Again, I was able to see firsthand the power of sports in bringing people together and building relationships.”

As for the grant money, Jack has big dreams as well. He was chatting with a friend about the challenges that come with playing lacrosse and it gave him a great idea on how he can expand to help even more students to play. He writes, 

“We spoke about our individual experiences in the international lacrosse community, and what the biggest challenges are for the growth of the sport. He told me about one of the biggest struggles that his community faces. Throughout the course of any given month, girls are unable to attend school or participate in sports for about a week due to their menstrual cycle. This means that for 25% of the time, girls have to stay home. As a result, it is difficult to increase participation for girls in sports – especially a sport like lacrosse which already faces its own challenges.”

“Therefore, I would like to use the grant to purchase and send period underwear. I would like to approach the company Thinx and work out an agreement. For example, I would ask them if it would be possible that for every one item that I purchase, they would be willing to donate one or two. I have done something similar for the boy’s lacrosse program. I started a “Cups for Kenya” equipment drive. I reached out to Shock Doctor and asked them for a donation. I purchased 50 protective cups and they donated another 100 cups. It is an overlooked but critical piece of equipment for players. Access to this product for women in communities like Reagan’s would drastically improve the quality of life for these girls by allowing them to receive a more complete education, as well as participate in sports.”

We are so excited to see where All Latitutes Lacrosse goes in the future and we are so proud to have Jack as our 2024 top scholarship recipient! 

Meet Victor Caceres, A 2023 Scholarship Recipient

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! 

Meet Gitanjali Rao, a 2023 Scholarship Recipient

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 Esther Lau and Fiona Lu, 2023 Scholarship Recipients

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 Austin Picinich, A 2023 Scholarship Recipient

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. 

A Nebraska Teen Set To Making A Difference In His Community

Today’s scholarship highlight is a teen in Nebraska trying hard to make a difference in his community. He writes, 

“My community is a private high school composed of students from middle and upper-middle-class families. I have observed not only a shortage of awareness of sustainability issues but also a lack of self-awareness of our contribution to the problem. In a community that has a stated mission of “caring for a common home”, we seem to be falling short in this aspect.”

“My solution is to increase the awareness of environmental issues in our community, I’m deeply interested in the issue of sustainability. I’m on the leadership team of a local group called a Students for Sustainability. We organize events to raise awareness for sustainability, and bring together environmental groups from around Omaha.  I designed a solar energy and electric vehicle charger project to bring attention to these issues and start conversations. As the president of the Sustainability Club since my sophomore year, I am implementing new practices such as composting, pollinator gardens, and Earth Day activities.”

“I’ve been interested in sustainability for a very long time now. I really wanted to create a lasting impact on my school’s sustainability. Educating the student body has been a main driver for pushing these initiatives forward.”

This student is inspiring not only his hometown, but all of us reading his story. With his first feedback form, he submitted three or four different ideas on scholarship submissions, each of them just as impressive as the other. We urged him to choose one project to stick with for the final submission, and he did just that. We can see his passion shine through, and we cannot wait to see where it takes him! Regardless of how far he goes in the scholarship program, his local high school and community have already benefitted from him tenfold, and that’s what we love seeing.

New Logo, Who Dis?

The time has come to unveil the new branding for our scholarship! As I stepped into the role of scholarship chair and content writer, I began noticing some variations in the way that those who came before me referred to the scholarship. The original name for our scholarship was the Design A Better Future scholarship (which I’m assuming came from the fact that the projects needs to be based on the design thinking cycle). But as the years went on, it also started being referred to as the Build A Better future scholarship and both titles started being used interchangeably.

In order to *hopefully* limit future confusion, I decided to update the scholarship logo and declare one title to be the official title from now on. The HGU scholarship will henceforth be known as the Build A Better Future scholarship. I felt as though using the verb “design” was too passive and wasn’t giving our applicants enough credit. Yes, they are using the design thinking cycle but they are also going above and beyond to bring their designs to life.

design a better future scholarship high school seniors

In addition to updating the logo and title, the website has been updated with all the information needed for our 2023 scholarship! I look forward to seeing how the next group of applicants works on building a better future for their communities. If you or anyone you know is a high school senior that will be graduating in 2023, you can find more information regarding the scholarship here and here. Please email scholarship@honorsgraduation.com with any questions. Good luck!