2021 Virtual Aspen Experience: Inspiring and Preparing Scholars to Lead

By Molly Pencke and Jeremiah Grant Jr., Bezos Scholars Program

4 min

Over a period of nine days in late June, the 2021 cohort of Bezos Scholars participated in Virtual Aspen – a series of diverse, engaging and exclusive leadership activities and events. This year, for the first time ever, these events were completely virtual as it was still not safe to travel and gather in Aspen, CO, as we usually do when onboarding each cohort.  

Thanks to the incredible support of our amazing partners and notables, we were still able to make events special and meaningful. Virtual programming was designed to build community, belonging and buy-in amongst the 30 student and educator Scholars who attended from various locations across the U.S. as well as across Africa per our partnership with the African Leadership Academy

Our main objective was to create inspiration and build motivation for Scholars to act on issues they care about by facilitating opportunities for them to engage with diverse leaders from various fields of impact. Workshops followed a progression and provided them with frameworks, tools and the ability to practice what they were learning, leading them through how to create feasible, sustainable and impactful community change projects. 

A big part of the experience is also the opportunity to participate in the Aspen Ideas Festival (AIF), which, this year, was also offered virtually. Usually, the week-long Festival brings people from around the world together to engage in deep, thought-provoking discussions and dialogues about the ideas and issues that shape our lives and societies. This year they held virtual events over the course of four days around the theme of "American Futures”. Sessions were focused on the future of democracy, work, identity, environment and mental health.  

During this year’s AIF sessions, professor Arthur Brooks led a talk called, On Happiness: Life Lessons from COVID to explain the concept of post-traumatic growth [positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning], arguing the pandemic offered us ways to grow, in ways most unexpected, and gave us life lessons that may help us to lead a happier life. Pete Buttigieg had a conversation with Senior CNN correspondent, Abby Philips, about Building Bridges to Restructure America with his view that we need a concerted bipartisan effort and a vast budget to put reconstruction plans into action to be able to come together and fortify the nation’s foundation. 

Scholars also participated in daily BSP programming, interacting with over 10 special Scholar-only notables, including leadership staff from the Aspen Institute and NY Times author and Founder of Weave: The Social Fabric Project, David Brooks. William Kamkwamba, Co-founder of the Moving Windmills Project, also joined them whose inspiring story was told in the book and movie, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Scholars also participated in six workshops with partners such as IDEO.org to learn more about how to apply human-centered design, an organization called nXu to learn how and why they should lean into cultivating their purpose, and even participated in an Aspen Institute Seminar, reflecting on timeless ideas and values through text-based dialogue with expert moderators.  

To provide a snapshot of some of the activities Scholars participated in we’ve highlighted our new partnership with nXu, a favorite re-occurring notable Eric Motley, and a workshop led by Ankita Roy from IDEO.org. 

NXU Logo

nXu is a national non-profit organization whose mission is to catalyze and equip youth and adults to explore, articulate and pursue their purpose. This is the first time we have partnered to offer a series of five workshops focused on exploring and cultivating a sense of purpose that will fuel Scholar community change projects throughout the coming academic year.  

Yutaka Tamura is the cofounder of nXu and it’s been incredible to work with him. He is intentional, thoughtful and a true steward of their work. He reflected, “We are thrilled to partner with the Bezos Scholars Program given our shared commitment to supporting youth to reach their full potential by cultivating their sense of purpose and related social-emotional capacities through evidence-based practices. More specifically, we hope that Scholars will turn to their refined sense of purpose as a north star as they navigate not only the rest of their BSP experience but also their larger academic, professional and personal journeys.”  

One Scholar described the impact of the purpose workshops recounting, “As someone who always seems to have a million ideas floating around, I very much appreciate the structure and modeling to clarify our purpose!” Another commented on the nXu pedagogy sharing, “The use of research-based information added to my breadth of knowledge and reinvigorated my sense of purpose.” nXu has been a fervent partner in helping Scholars catalyze their leadership potential to more intentionally cultivate their sense of purpose and connect it to carefully selecting their project focus with the help and support of their communities.  

eric motley

Eric Motley is the author of Madison Park: A Place of Hope, a memoir about his life growing up in a community founded by freed slaves in Montgomery, Alabama. He currently serves as the Executive Vice President of the Aspen Institute. In his session with Scholars, Motley recounted the remarkable community that raised him and the lessons they taught him about faith, education and what the support of an entire community can garner. His powerful storytelling showed Scholar Saifeddine Lahmar how he can use his skills and experience to better connect with his community and them to him, sharing, “I feel fortunate to be part of a community with a broader optimistic vision of the world.” Scholar Avery Ell also shared, “I think Eric's story was so fascinating and hands down my favorite so far. I really appreciated the opportunity to connect with and learn from him.” 

Ankita Roy

Akita Roy, Senior Service Designer at IDEO.org led a workshop for Scholars with her colleague Jocelyn Wyatt, their Chief Executive Officer. IDEO.org uses human-centered design to design products and services alongside organizations that are committed to creating a more just and inclusive world. They showcased some powerful examples of their work and led Scholars through an interactive workshop so they could learn how to start building their research plans.  

Research plans are a great tool for mapping out goals connected to what you want to learn when conducting research related to community member’s behaviors and attitudes, experiences and relationships, as well as root causes of a persistent challenge. From there, they ask users to focus on who can help you learn about these things – people with lived experience and expertise, subject matter experts, staff providing services to your target audience, and key figures close to those with lived experience. The final section of a research plan asks the user to plan how they will solicit the information they want to gather, brainstorming questions they want to ask, as well as creative ways to draw the information out. Research plans are key in Scholar community change project development as Scholars are asked to engage with their community to gather their insight and ideas before selecting their project topic and approach.  

Scholar Bella Garcia reflected on the workshop sharing, “Ankita’s workshop gave us a lot of insight into how we should design our community change projects so that they are more accessible and honor the communities we each will focus on. This session was incredibly helpful making sure we begin on the right path as we enter the early stages of planning.”  

Despite changes to the program initiated by the pandemic, BSP’s team and partners are excited to have been able to offer immersive, high-quality leadership programming and exclusive access to some amazing notables. As a result, Scholars have found themselves in a new position—fathoming their purpose, brainstorming new ideas and working collaboratively to impact their communities with a team of supporters around them.  

Todd Breyfogle, Managing Director of Executive Leadership Seminars for the Aspen Institute said it best when he shared. “Scholars were exceptional this year– as readers, as thinkers, in their care for one another, and their seriousness of purpose as learners and leaders. The international character was a real treat—an unexpected blessing of Zoom.” We couldn’t have said it better.