“Today, we make NHS history,” said Ronn Nozoe, CEO of NASSP, “by announcing an additional four $5,000 scholarships for each of the four NHS pillars: Character, Leadership, Scholarship, and Service.”
“Wow, four smaller awards? I might have a real shot here,” I thought, moving to the edge of my seat.
“The Character Award, Ethan Sandoval!”
“The Leadership Award, Owen Zhang!”
“The Scholarship Award, Pooja Muthuraj!”
“The Service Award, Alyssa Speelman!”
“Dang! Well, I had a good run,” I told myself, fully prepared to return home with my finalist award and the experience of an awesome weekend with awesome people.
“And finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for,” Nozoe said. “The 2022 NHS Scholarship Winner, Evan Osgood!”
The room erupted. I couldn’t believe it.
That was the scene at the first-ever NHS Scholarship Gala, held in April as part of National Student Leadership Week in Washington, D.C. The week’s theme of “Trailblazing Leadership” captured the strength and resilience of my peers from across the country. All 25 of us high school seniors gathered to celebrate our success as NHS scholarship finalists. We toured monuments, made memories, and had meaningful conversations about the world of education. My personal highlights included teaching some finalists how to swing dance, talking politics while working out with a group of finalists every night, winning the scavenger hunt at the International Spy Museum, getting my voice heard by officials at the U.S. Department of Education, and waking up at 5 a.m. to tour the White House and take pictures with a secret service agent who, for legal reasons, was “just in the background.” Oh, and winning $25,000.
It’s a weekend I’ll remember for the rest of my life. But how was I lucky enough to get an invitation? To answer that, we need to back up a few years. Eleven, to be exact.
A Love of LEGO
I was seven years old, and I loved LEGO (I know, very original). Then, I learned about computers. These fancy machines could explore the ocean, launch rockets, or do anything in between. Then I learned about robots. They were like LEGO and computers combined. Incredible! I was hooked.
I wanted to learn all there was about robots. But sadly, there weren’t any robotics opportunities at my school. Robotics was just emerging as a widespread field, and it hadn’t made its way into elementary education. So instead, in classic seven-year-old style, I annoyed my siblings until they agreed to teach me.
I learned all about robots, from building them (out of LEGO, of course—the other ones just weren’t as interesting) to programming them with block coding. I loved it and started sharing my creations with my friends and teachers at school (the one that shot a ping-pong ball was always the favorite). Everyone loved my builds, and they wanted to learn how to do it, too. That was when I started down the lifelong path of volunteerism.
Along with my family (seven-year-old me was better at LEGO than logistics), I started hosting small sessions after school with my robots. We shot ping-pong balls at targets and built new robots. Then, we started teaching block coding and word spread. Soon, demand exploded, and we had more than 30 kids showing up! We expanded and eventually moved from teaching just robots to all of STEM. We began recruiting other students to help as counselors, and eventually, we became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit: STEMs For Youth.
Over the next nine years, we expanded to include intergenerational groups, underserved communities, and even job training classes. We taught things like 3D modeling in CAD software, website design, and app development—all employable skills. Our fashion design class taught products like Photoshop and Inkscape. Then, we custom-ordered the clothes, and participants got to actually wear their designs. Our most popular class for school-aged students was Minecraft, where we used a world of blocks to teach everything from math to history (we once used boats and a jungle to teach the Lewis and Clark expedition).
It’s crazy to think that I’ve impacted over a million people through STEMs For Youth: teaching classes, presenting at conferences, and working with government officials to create STEM curricula. I’ve learned so much: marketing and advertising when learning how to recruit new volunteers; fundraising, negotiating, and budgeting while raising money; graphic design while creating the website and logo; and even how to navigate government systems to file for 501(c)(3) status.
Making a Difference During the Pandemic
STEMs For Youth was incredible, and we had great plans to continue expanding. Then COVID hit. It had a huge impact on us and our community. Our schools were shut down for a year and a half, and we couldn’t host any more classes.
Volunteering had always been an incredible way for me to make a difference and feel better during tough times. I figured COVID-19 was no different, and I got to work. I found a guide from the CDC and started making masks. It was hard, but slowly I refined my technique and started gifting my homemade masks to friends and family. Every person who received one was extremely grateful and wanted to help make even more. We were all in the same boat. We wanted to do something—anything—to fight the virus that was taking over our community.
I recognized that feeling all around me, and I started recruiting friends, then friends of friends, and then complete strangers to help. I recruited students, veterans, church groups, organizations, and more. We were all under shelter-in-place orders, so I would send over materials, and we’d meet on Zoom. We’d spend an entire afternoon together building masks. It was a great way to stay sane during lockdown.
We kept expanding, and eventually, we founded the nonprofit SOS for PPE. I created a website, began applying for grants, and started shipping PPE assembly kits full of all the materials needed to make masks. I even hosted virtual assembly parties, where people would come together, combat the social isolation of the pandemic, and reconnect while making a genuine difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
I still remember one heartwarming experience delivering masks to a couple in the early days of the pandemic. I placed the masks on the front porch, rang the bell, and stepped back to my car as usual. The woman answered the door, looked down, and burst into tears. It turns out they had been stuck inside for three weeks and didn’t feel safe even going to the grocery store. She couldn’t have been more thankful and appreciative, calling out, “Bless you and bless what you are doing for this community!” It was an incredible example of how something as small as a few masks can make such a massive impact on someone.
Today, I can hardly believe that SOS for PPE has built and donated over 800,000 pieces of PPE through a volunteer network of over 10,000 people across the country. By embodying the NHS pillars of Character, Leadership, Scholarship, and Service, I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought possible. I’d encourage anyone able to get involved with NHS and apply for the NHS scholarship. You could have a journey just like mine.
The NHS Scholarship application process closes November 30, 2022. For more information, visit nhs.us/scholarship.