By Jeffrey Rindskopf
In one corner of the sprawling atrium, a photographer snaps professional photos of the sharp-dressed high school graduates arriving to the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle just as it nears closing time. They’ve assembled here from all over Washington state to accept a cumulative $80,000 in scholarships from the Comcast Foundation’s annual Leaders and Achievers Program.
For the upcoming 2017-18 school year, 80 Washington state seniors were selected to receive the $1000 scholarship for their proven commitment to academic performance as well as community service and leadership. They’re only the latest of an estimated 25,000 students to have received some $26 million in scholarships given out since Leaders and Achievers was founded in 2000.
One unique stipulation of the program states that only one student per high school is eligible to receive a scholarship. Rather than apply, the students must be nominated by their school’s principal or guidance counselor, ensuring a level of stiff competition among the students considered.
“You’re here not because you wrote in, but because someone selected you,” says Connie Thompson, the event’s emcee and a 42-year broadcast veteran at KOMO News. “Everyone here was entered by another individual who watched them grow through the years.”
The Washington state recipients able to attend the awards ceremony held in their honor arrive with one parent each to collect their name tags, take photos, and mingle in the Microsoft Lakefront Pavilion. To commend the students and parents for coming, a gift basket is awarded to those who traveled farthest to be there. The winners come from Spokane, about 280 miles away.
Before the more substantial awards are given, MOHAI Executive Director Leonard Garfield greets the assemblage and welcomes the many newcomers with an abridged tour of the museum’s highlights, including the atrium’s 64-foot Wawona sculpture made from the hull of a salvaged sailing ship.
As one of the event’s first speakers, Garfield refers to a few young innovators of the past to illustrate how the students gathered here might impact the future. The next speaker, Comcast’s VP of external affairs Beth Hester, strikes a similar chord in saying how the scholarship program will hopefully do its part in empowering the students to “go forth and do great things.”
Next, Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal takes the podium to tout the state’s public education program—which, he says, expends $140,000 per student for a K-12 education—and encourages the recent graduates to “pay it forward” as they become taxpayers helping to educate subsequent generations.
Following him is Bojie Mageo, co-founder of the online surveying platform Swurveys. Another recipient of Comcast funds in the form of a $50,000 grant, Mageo relates how the opportunity inspired him to found Swurveys six months later and, more personally, to come out of the closet.
“Look for those opportunities to reach your potential,” he advises the crowd.
Thompson returns to present the students with certificates recognizing their achievements, calling them up one at a time and putting her broadcasting skills to good use to engage each in small talk. The students share the high school they’ve graduated from, their favorite TV shows, and most crucially, their career goals.
Their answers are uniformly ambitious—pediatrician, geophysicist, army officer, cellular biologist, immigration lawyer, entrepreneur—but the most impressive is saved for last. The evening’s final speaker is Harkiran Singh, a graduate of Issaquah’s Liberty High School and winner of the $5,000 Comcast Founders Scholarship, who aspires to be nothing short of president.
Singh says how she intends to use her scholarship on internships and summer educational programs to make the most of her time as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. Demonstrating her natural ease with public speaking, she reiterates the other speakers’ words of encouragement and concludes with her own words of advice.
“I live by this motto—do not what’s easy and expected, but what most ignites your passion,” she says, then adds, “And if you see my name on a ballot in 20 years, vote Singh!”
If their ambitions are any indication, the scholarships these soon-to-be undergraduates received will be only the beginning of their bright futures.