20 Seconds of Courage

Part two of our Scholar stories from their time in Aspen.

By 2023 Student Scholars

kim and yordanos 2023

Before joining in the discussion at Aspen Ideas Festival, the BSP staff challenge Scholars to practice 20 seconds of courage – an idea that invites taking a healthy risk despite our hesitations or fears. By practicing 20 seconds of courage, Scholars raised questions and offered their perspective with honesty and curiosity.

Read three stories of Scholars practicing 20 seconds of courage during their time in Aspen.

Priyanka Gupta

Student Scholar • Frederick, Maryland

Every morning, I woke up surrounded by the majestic natural world of Aspen. As each day filled with more memories, I could not ignore the bittersweet realization that this dream would soon come to an end. I knew that the plane ticket in my bag, with an itinerary that originally took me from Maryland to Aspen, would soon reverse course and I would be on a flight back to my hometown by the end of the week. From this experience, I learned saying goodbye does not equate to a sad ending but rather a new beginning, forged from fond memories shared with one another.

A significant portion of my time in Aspen consisted of the Aspen Ideas Festival. The tasty falafel, delightful small talk with the golf cart drivers and the joy of finding an empty front row seat at a speaker session all leave a special place in my heart. As I navigated the festival, I even mustered up 20 seconds of courage to ask many of the speakers a simple request: “Can I get a selfie with you?”

This trip has bestowed many vital lessons upon me, the most important being the power of confidence. Although none of the sessions that I attended explicitly discussed confidence, each speaker emulated it. Witnessing their relentless confidence as they discussed certain topics had such a profound impact on me. The speakers would sit beside one another on the big stage, with great posture and spoke so articulately about their area of expertise. Never a single hesitation, even in the face of a subliminally loaded question. A prime example happened during the opening session when Princess Reema bint Bandar, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, was asked pointed questions of her leadership and decision-making processes. With the task of answering these difficult questions, she remained confident as she delivered a perfect response. Her ability to provide a thorough response, educate the crowd on her beliefs and policies, while remaining confident in who she was and how she showed up was inspiring and stuck with me as a lesson to carry beyond the festival.

Another speaker that I admired was Eric Liu, an author, the founder of Citizen University, and a former White House Deputy Assistant. Despite having such wonderful achievements, his focus during the Scholar-only notable session was sharing his journey as a child of immigrant parents, a story that resonates with my experience. Prior to spending time with Eric, I hoped that despite being an immigrant I could accomplish great things in life. Soon after the discussion, I came to believe that I can accomplish great things in life because I am an immigrant. This is an important part of my identity that will propel me to the finish line.. This emulated the power of confidence.

As I made my journey home to Maryland, I reflected on the ways that I want to bring my experiences at the Aspen Ideas Festival back. I look forward to displaying the eloquence and confidence needed to empower others in my community as I design my Community Change Project. I would like to thank the Bezos Scholars Program for making my journey to and from Aspen possible. I will continue to cherish the amazing memories I made during this trip.

priyanka and eden
scholar nametags
priyanka and rithika

Rithika Sivapokaran

Student Scholar • Medford, New York

My trip to Aspen truly changed me. At first, I must admit, I was extremely afraid. What if these people are crazy? Am I really qualified to be here? And most importantly... WHAT IF I DON’T LIKE THE FOOD? Despite my hesitations, my mom was quick to send me off with a word of advice: Be strong. Once I arrived, I quickly picked up on the saying, “When in Aspen...” Everyone used it to “justify” their choices no matter how ridiculous it the task was. This mindset, along with my mom’s advice, silenced my worries and allowed me to have one of my most memorable experiences.

When in Aspen, I took risks. Prior to the trip, I was told the Bezos Scholars would be the youngest attendees at the festival among some of the world’s most influential leaders. How does one maintain composure after hearing that? I was sure that earning the attention of any of these amazing people would be challenging but to my surprise, they came to us! By Day 2, I was asking random attendees if I could join them for lunch. Who knew quesadillas could spark such meaningful conversations?

When in Aspen, I learned. Catherine Price explained why I should break up with my phone. Mónica Guzmán taught me that, “we are so divided, we are blind.” Maria Ressa revealed that it is normal to feel like you don’t belong in any country or community. Imani Perry emphasized that we must defend the rights of children to be thoroughly informed. Eric Liu clarified that, “power is a capacity in which you ensure others do what they're supposed to do.” David Brooks highlighted that, “people are dying to share their stories.” Rainn Wilson shared, “we are spiritual beings having human experiences.” Mike Bezos articulated the importance of listening to what others have to say before sharing your story and Jackie Bezos reminded me that sometimes it’s hard to be human. Ultimately, every person I spoke to impacted me and I am grateful for each person and idea they imparted.

When in Aspen, I tried new things. This trip created an environment that encouraged me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. As someone who likes to know every detail of the plan, I was very uncomfortable when I didn’t receive a schedule before the trip and was asked to wait and lean into the unknown. A day into the trip, I realized that I can’t prepare for everything and that it’s okay to not know what’s next on the schedule. I learned that I had the most fun when I wasn’t thinking ahead. This new mindset allowed me to enjoy the moment – something I plan to carry throughout my life. Speaking of trying new things, I also tried charcoal lemonade! I highly recommend giving it a try!

When in Aspen, I built courage. Courage was my fuel when it came time for Q&A. With 20 seconds of courage, I would shoot my hand up high, eager to share my thoughts. Courage also allowed me to converse with incredible people such as Sal Khan, Deb Roy, and John Mather.

When in Aspen, I had fun. I ate the most enchanting food, captured magnificent pictures, and made life-long friendships with fellow Scholars. It was beautiful to watch how fast humans grow to love, care, and trust one another. Within a matter of hours, our cohort of Scholars were hugging, joking, teasing, laughing, and crying. This trip was an opportunity to be vulnerable with each other and investigate our true self. My trip to Aspen was a dream and I am truly grateful to participate in a transformative experience.


Oluwabusola Oni

Educator Scholar • African Leadership Academy

“Break up with your phone.” This was one phrase that caught my attention and that I have continued to quote post my trip to Aspen as a reminder to myself and to my peers. Of course, technology has great benefits and the Aspen Ideas Festival and Bezos Scholars Program wasn’t necessarily advocating against its use. But my key takeaway from the wonderful and life-changing time we spent at Aspen was the need to know how to make meaningful connections with yourself, others and our communities as leaders.

Catherine Price, whose book title I started with, clearly shared how curiosity and playfulness could unlock a world of possibilities for us as leaders — and how the challenge of losing touch with the present (because we are so caught up in the virtual) could hinder our effectiveness as leaders.

In my experience as an educator, mother, wife and friend, I find that excessive use of screen time can hurt my relationship and self-esteem, so I resonate with the idea of finding alternatives that bring joy.

This wasn’t the only highlight of my six days at Aspen. From hearing about the passions of the excellent Scholars and observing their vulnerability, care and love, to the notable sessions who shared deeply and wholly with us, my takeaway around meaningful connections was reiterated.

My joyful moment in Aspen I’ll never forget was reaching out and bumping into other attendees and speakers where I got to exercise my 20 seconds of courage; those conversations have sown seeds that I look forward to seeing them bloom.

Expanding on the theme of connection, the need for dialogue in bridging divides really stood out for me. As the world becomes more polarized, the tips shared below will be important in racial healing, community development and personal leadership:

  • Build trust

  • Ask playful questions

  • Humanize people

  • Invite people into a great endeavor

Another notable session that sealed the week’s learning for me was David Brooks. Brooks challenged us to live a meaningful life where we see others — and feel seen by them. The stories he shared resonated with all of us as we long to live a purposeful life and leave our mark. This reminds me of the poem we spontaneously wrote with another notable and guest presenter, Natasha Carrizosa, who asked us to…

Be extraordinary
Searching for deep connections to make lasting impact
Can you stay steadfast?
Help others rise to their fullest potential
Others will testify to your extraordinariness
Lead with compassion
Acknowledge those who have gone ahead of you
Remember the past but don’t let it stop your future
See you have become extraordinary