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. 

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.”