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. 

And The 2023 Winners Are…..

I know I say this every year, but this year’s winners were especially hard to choose because the quantity and quality of submissions we received were incredible. Our team spent two full weeks discussing each and every application, calling references, hearing these kids’ stories from the teacher’s perspectives, and verifying information. It was hard to make the final decision on our top five winners, but alas, we were all able to agree on who should receive the $10,000 college tuition money.

So without further ado, meet our 2023 scholarship winners!

Jalen Coleman: Jalen is our top winner and will receive $5,000 in grant money to further his project. He worked with his city and sponsors to refurbish basketball courts and host tournaments for kids to play in at no cost to the player. 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 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 raise, 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.”

Austin Picinich: He was set out to help the salmon spawning in Juanita Creek by designing and carrying out the painting of multiple murals around Washington. He writes,

“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 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.

Gitanjali Rao: She is a innovator that not only works on research projects, but also adopted an educational outreach program. She writes,

“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 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.”

Victor Caceres: He was inspired to remodel his town’s food pantry. He writes,

“My project is to renovate and refurbish Martha’s Pantry at my local perish of St. Bridget of Sweden Catholic Church. Saint Bridgets has been my local parish and I know the community very well. Along with that, St. Bridgets is also where my troop meets. I believe my project will help the community by providing an adequate space to distribute perishable and non-perishable food and goods 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 food and goods.”

Fiona Lu and Esther Lau: These two girls have set their eyes on politics to change laws to better their low-income community (among other bills they have been working hard to pass!) and they are working to promote low-income youth to get involved with legislate processes as well. They write,

“Basic Needs Now bridges the gap between the large number of low-income and impoverished youth and their low level of engagement in advocacy. We do this in two ways: policy advocacy and grassroots advocacy. Through policy advocacy, we hope to provide opportunities for low-income youth to participate in bills that support access to basic needs, whether that’s through proposing policies, pushing them through the legislature, or other forms of involvement. At the same time, we’ll hone in on on-the-ground work by creating a chapter infrastructure that mobilizes youth nationwide to form strong connections with their local communities in need. We’re changing the advocacy landscape by giving a platform to low-income youth to fight for issues that affect themselves, while existing organizations often fail to represent our particular community. Moreover, our simultaneous emphasis on both top-down and bottom-up approaches to engage and prioritize impacted communities sets us apart. By working with and building upon the strong network of legislative trailblazers and pioneering advocates we’ve created in the past year through SB 260, California’s Menstrual Equity Act of 2023, we’re excited to uplift the voices of our own community, empowering youth like ourselves to join the movement for economic justice.”