Twenty high school seniors from California to New York—and several states in between—flew to Chicago for the first in-person Most Valuable Student Leadership Weekend since 2019. As the scholars met for the first time, it became clear that despite coming from different backgrounds, they all had at least one thing in common: a deep desire to help others and give back to their communities. With 20 brilliant, compassionate students who already had impressive resumes of building stronger communities, picking the top winners was incredibly difficult. “The Elks National Foundation has a unique focus on the actions we take, our leadership style, and especially our own behaviors and how we’re impacting others,” says Diya Jha, who was awarded a top prize: a $50,000 scholarship. “Elks offer phenomenal opportunities to grow as a student, a leader and a person.”
Sponsored by Frederick, Md., Lodge No. 684, Diya plans to attend Yale University and major in computer science, and she has already started making a huge difference in her community. No stranger to opportunities, as a high school senior, she was selected as one of 12 students across the United States to take part in the Bezos Scholars program, exclusively for high school students and educators.
“My school is a Title 1 school where more than 46 percent of the students come from low-income backgrounds,” says Diya. “Drug use is a pandemic in my school. My aspirations go beyond avoiding drugs myself—I want to create positive change in my community.”
Diya developed and executed Let’s TALC (Teach, Access, Learn, Choice). The first step in the program was to educate students about the dangers of opioid use, and how access to prescription opioids for injuries, surgical procedures, and chronic pain can lead to addiction. Then, the program encouraged students to talk about their experiences and develop other life skills and passions.
“Some students shared how they initiated substance use as a coping mechanism for dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges,” says Diya. “I worked on engaging students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and social groups, such as the student athletes, to reach the full breadth of our high school population.”
Diya’s program encouraged participation in skill development courses and other community-building activities as an alternative to drug use. She instituted public speaking classes, introduced students to oratorical competitions, and encouraged them to volunteer at the local soup kitchen.
Diya applied for another grant with the Frederick County Community Foundation to round out the program, providing healthy after-school snacks, introducing students to scholarship opportunities, hosting movie nights, encouraging involvement with STEM projects, and hosting Senior Sunrise events.
“We coordinated Senior Sunrise, where our seniors gathered together to watch the sunrise and eat breakfast,” says Diya. “It was a very pleasant experience. Such events provided a venue to bond and share positive experiences with each other.” While her high school experience is coming to an end, Diya refuses to let the program end with her.
“I want my work to continue, so I recruited underclassmen to keep this work sustainable, and I shared with them the funding avenues for future plans,” says Diya. “I am a person who believes in putting in the work to make things better.”
That was a common theme among the Leadership Weekend participants. The other top winner, sponsored by Towson, Md., Lodge No. 469, has been training as a volunteer firefighter since he was just 9 years old.
On September 11, 2001, Agam Igwe’s parents were headed to the Twin Towers for an appointment. His mother, who was pregnant with his older sister at the time, became unusually sick, causing them to stay home.
That decision saved their lives and became a focal point of Agam’s youth.
Growing up with that story and learning about the heroic actions of the first responders that day inspired Agam to join the Junior Firefighters program. By third grade, Agam was lifting 150-pound dummies onto his shoulder during rescue drills. Giving back to his community has been a part of who he is since before he was born.
“After six rigorous years of training, two leading battalion cadences, I graduated at the highest rank,” says Agam. “I didn’t expect the strenuous training, but I persevered, and the leadership skills I acquired molded ambitions of creating more inclusive communities.”
Agam plans to attend Stanford University and study engineering. His career dreams include working with surgical robotics, so entire surgeries can be performed remotely—just like in Marvel’s Iron Man.
“I aspire to merge concepts of robotic kinematics, cellular imaging and biomaterials, in hopes of creating faster, more affordable tools for pediatric cancer patients,” says Agam, a survivor himself.
This upcoming summer, Agam will intern at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory & Children’s Hospital, where he will be turn data into model representations. He will also work with a Foundation whose mission is to provide preventative and curative eye care, and Agam specifically will work on understanding the connection between diabetes, acute myopia and cataracts.
“I strive to be in a community of innovative thinkers who see connections between studying engineering and benefiting society,” says Agam. “I won’t have to wait until I’m out of college to start making a difference and can apply my knowledge to current research, helping others while still in school.”
Every single one of the Top 20 scholars has already made a difference in their communities, and it will be so exciting to see what they accomplish in the future.
At the beginning of the weekend, it was clear that service was one thing that all the scholars had in common. By the time the weekend ended, they all were all part of the #ElksFamily, too
Diya and Agam both earned $50,000 scholarships. The second-place winners, who earned $40,000 scholarships, are Becca Mizrachy, sponsored by Boca Raton, Fla., Lodge No. 2166, and William (Joshua) Jones, sponsored by Marshall, Texas, Lodge No. 683. The third-place winners of $30,000 are Sophie Kloppenburg, sponsored by Mount Vernon, Ind., Lodge No. 277, and Aaron Tran, sponsored by Hollister, Calif., Lodge No. 1436.
For 2023-24, the Elks National Foundation allocated nearly $2.9 million to fund the Most Valuable Student scholarship program, which includes 502 four-year scholarships ranging from $4,000 to $50,000. For more information about the Most Valuable Student scholarship program, including eligibility and deadlines, visit enf.elks.org/MVS.