Happy International Youth Day! More than recognizing the world’s 1.8 billion young people, this day is all about celebrating their essential role as leaders who are transforming our planet.
As society is rapidly shifting, learning how to create positive change is a critical skill for every student. Rather than being paralyzed by problems like climate change or deepening inequality, young leaders are rising up to impact their own communities and beyond.
When it comes to education — which the U.N. chose as this year’s focus for International Youth Day — it’s no surprise thatstudents are leading the way. To celebrate, we’re sharing stories from three winners of the T-Mobile Foundation, T-Mobile and Ashoka 2018 Changemaker Challenge who are making education more inclusive, connected, and sustainable.
Read on to meet trailblazing young leaders and catch a vision for how we can transform education.
Sarah Raza knows what it’s like to be unfairly labeled by other people. She’s faced stigma at school and elsewhere since she began wearing a hijab in sixth grade.
Although Sarah considered herself accepting of everyone, including those with intellectual disabilities, at age 15 she examined her own subconscious bias when she found herself avoiding her friend’s autistic sister.
“I was disappointed that I was doing the stereotyping that…I fight so hard against,” Sarah says.
Sarah realized that her school wasn’t as inclusive as she thought, either. Schools with special needs departments often have a separate wing. “There is a separate bus,” she says. “Some of those kids never get to leave that classroom.” According to the U.S. Department of Education, some special education students — around 13.5 percent — spend less than 40 percent of the day in a classroom with general education students.
Seeking to overcome the divide between classrooms, Sarah created AWARE, a club that brings together general education students and students with intellectual disabilities to cultivate friendships and remove the stigma. Students hang out at sporting events and over cafeteria lunches. The club promotes understanding and reflection, helping students see that they’re more similar than different.
Each student-led AWARE club includes a special education teacher among its advisors, and both general and special education students on the executive board. More than a club, Sarah describes AWARE as a movement. Since she and her peers began reaching out to other schools, over 300 students have joined the effort to make schools more inclusive.
Classmates Zoha Siddiqui and Hannah Ford first bonded over cross-country running, but they soon discovered a deeper shared passion: girls’ education. There are 62 million girls worldwide who aren’t in school, and most have no access to books, safe reading spaces, or learning material.
For Zoha, the issue resonated on a personal level when she heard the stories of her aunts in Pakistan, who had been deprived of the secondary education their brothers received. In middle school, Zoha had devoted a trip to Pakistan to learn more about girls’ education in the region.
One day, as Hannah and Zoha were shopping together, the two high school freshmen decided then and there to create an organization to support education for girls. It was “one of those random ideas that everyone has — and we decided to take action,” Hannah says.
Over many late night conversations, they developed “HER” — short for “HER education is HER right.” The organization’s mission: build sustainable libraries for underfunded girls’ schools in developing countries and connect people in the cause by informing everyone about the educational needs of girls.
Through Zoha’s family in Pakistan, the pair connected with local organizations to make the libraries a reality. Since 2016, Zoha and Hannah have worked with local partners to open 12 school libraries in Pakistan, including four mobile libraries supported by the Pakistan Air Force, and recently joined with the Atlas Cultural Foundation to build a library in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
Managed by teachers and students, the libraries are accessible and cost-efficient. Local carpenters design and build bookshelves, desks, and chairs, and professional librarians train teachers how to catalog and maintain the books. HER student clubs in the U.S. and host countries collect books and promote awareness about girls’ education — connecting students around the world in the fight for education equality.
Despite facing some skepticism as they launched HER, Zoha and Hannah committed anyway. “Being young…people question your intentions and how you can make an impact,” Hannah says. “But because we were so young, we were able to dream big and we wanted to take action to achieve those dreams. We weren’t going to let what people were telling us get in the way of that.”
Despite escalating climate change and environmental degradation, most public elementary schools across the U.S. do not teach environmental science. As a high school student, Rayan Krishnan set out to solve this problem by using technology to design an exciting classroom learning tool.
“In order to prevent misinformation, I want to make the science of climate change more accessible for youth with engaging games,” he described.
In the summer of 2017, Rayan created his educational game, Operation Sustain, which challenges students to build a successful city. Players strategically place houses, food and energy sources, and enact tax and transportation policies for the city’s citizens. Experimenting within the game, students learn more about renewable energy and pollution.
After working with a professor to improve and test the game, Rayan wrote an accompanying curriculum to teach to 3rd-5th grade Next Generation Science Standards and visited elementary schools in the fall. He quizzed students to gauge their understanding of climate change, and after introducing students to the game, he quizzed them again to discover they had more than doubled their score on average.
“The students said that playing Operation Sustain was the most fun they ever had at school,” Rayan later wrote. “The most positive outcome has been the testimony from elementary students who have said that they would be willing to make changes to their lifestyle to reduce their carbon footprint.”
While his innovation has reached around 500 students, Rayan set his vision on impacting education at a national level. “By sharing the curriculum with others, I can expand the program and involve other youth leaders to make a difference in their communities.”
Ashoka and the T-Mobile Foundation are excited to discover more inspiring stories from students like Sarah, Hannah, Zoha, and Rayan as we launch the second-annual Changemaker Challenge, which supports young people with bold new ideas for impacting their communities in the areas of education, technology, or the environment.
Thirty winning teams will receive an all-expenses paid trip to Seattle for a three-day Changemaker Lab workshop, as well as ongoing mentorship, skills development, and seed funding to scale their ideas. Applications are open for anyone age 13–23 to apply until Sept. 26, 2019. Learn more here — and be sure to share with the young changemakers you know.
This year, celebrate International Youth Day by finding your power to make change in your community, big or small.