Celebrating 2023 Bezos Scholar Community Change Projects!

By Molly Pencke, Bezos Scholars Program

15 min read


2023 Bezos Scholars have been engaging in program activities, building their leadership skills and developing their Community Change Projects for over nine months. They have remained committed to one another, the teams they’ve built, and their missions, putting in extra hours to bring projects to life!

Projects are fresh, creative approaches to how to meet unique community needs. Each project is specific to and as special as the Scholars who founded it. As part of the program, every project receives $1,000 in funding, which can be reapplied annually. For the Bezos Family Foundation, providing Scholars grant funding is a tangible way to invest in youth leadership, showing we believe in and trust young leaders.

In late January and early February, Scholar teams showcase their projects by giving virtual presentations to the BSP community, their loved ones and other stakeholders. These presentations are recorded and will be linked below as soon as they are available.

We are proud and excited to share the 2023 Scholar cohort's projects. Join us in celebrating these incredible student leaders, their educator supporters, and the teams they have built in their shared work to positively impact their communities.

New Community Change Projects Founded by 2023 Scholars

CLIP Foundation logo - Aayushi

The CLIP (Creating Legal Immigration Pathways) Foundation

Project Focus: Immigration Resources

Target Audience and Location: Immigrants in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, California.

Vision: An equitable immigration system free from financial barriers so that all immigrants can thrive in their new home countries.

Mission: Advocating for local immigrants by streamlining connections with legal and professional resources through events with community partners.

Project Description: Scholar Aayushi Garg and educator Scholar Sean Lewis thoughtfully explored and researched project options. Aaushi is the daughter of immigrants, and there is a high population of immigrants at their school and in the surrounding community. As they both identified what a confusing, complicated, and arduous process navigating the bureaucratic U.S. immigration system can be, they eventually decided to work on strategies to provide accessible legal aid and resources. Key to their project’s success was building a committed team and partnerships as they identify, engage and connect the people and organizations with the expertise to those who need it most but cannot afford it. They plan to host bi-weekly clinics at local libraries to aid local immigrants in studying for their citizenship test and filling out the N-400 form, which is used to apply for US citizenship through the naturalization process. They also plan to host a full-day legal aid event for the community with lawyers and vocational resources in the spring.

As a student leader, Aayushi is most proud of “navigating this project work during finals, college applications, and other stressors. We’ve gotten a lot done, and I’m so proud of my team!”

Don-t Oppress Youth Success-Kim

Don’t Oppress Youth Success

Project Focus: School-to-Prison Pipeline Prevention Strategies

Target Audience and Location: Sixth-grade boys of color from Dexter McCarty Middle School and High School mentors from Gresham High School in Gresham, Oregon.

Vision: A school community where every young person is decriminalized and nurtured to become a thriving member of society.

Mission: Through education and advocacy, we inspire educators to utilize positive relationship-building and restorative justice practices while connecting caring high school mentors of color to middle schoolers who need them most.

Project Description: Scholar Kim Cortes-Martinez and educator Scholar Cyrus Harshfield focused their project on the disproportionate number of young men of color being disciplined within schools and present in the juvenile justice system. Kim experienced the positive impact of restorative justice and now advocates for school staff to understand and use these practices to increase trusting relationships, strengthen belonging, and decrease ineffective punishments. In doing research, the team was most interested in developing prevention strategies and decided to create a mentorship program between passionate high school mentors and sixth-grade students, particularly boys of color. In the coming months, they plan to train mentors with the support of a partner organization. They will continue to recruit mentees, build connections with their families, and plan to launch the mentorship program officially in the spring. At the close of the school year, they plan to present their findings from piloting the mentoring program to representatives from the Gresham-Barlow School District and to continue their advocacy for the need to implement more restorative justice programs.

As a student leader, Kim is most proud of “securing a team of passionate young leaders in my community who are eager to create change.”

FLARE logo

FLARE (Financial Literacy and Advancement for Rio Grande Valley Equity)

Project Focus: Financial Literacy

Target Audience and Location: McAllen Memorial High School students and the wider Rio Grande Valley (RGV) community in and around McAllen, Texas.

Vision: Every young person in the RGV is financially literate and builds financial security through generational wealth.

Mission: To advocate and cultivate financial literacy for teens by providing positive learning experiences.

Project Description: Scholar David Muñoz and educator Scholar Aimee Nunez knew that they wanted to focus their efforts on financial literacy since the start of their Scholar journey. RGV, the community they live in, is a rural area that closely borders Mexico and has high immigrant and poverty rates. They were both passionate about doing something to empower people while ending generational cycles of poverty. They quickly established their project as a school club, gaining members and building a team that meets weekly to do their own learning on financial literacy. From there, they find and host opportunities to share their learnings with their peers and the wider community. They have already presented financial assistance to students at Brown Middle School. They are planning an upcoming event at the McAllen Public Library to get regional representatives and leaders to present on local businesses and the importance of financial literacy. They have also focused some of their efforts on service and recently hosted a donation drive for Mujeres Unidas, a domestic violence shelter.

As a student leader, David is proud of “working alongside such a dedicated group of individuals to create change within my community and to host a donation drive for Mujeres Unidas.”

golden eagle outreach

Golden Eagle Outreach

Project Focus: Student Belonging

Target Audience and Location: Freshman at Central High School in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Vision: A school community that fosters students’ belonging through service so that they feel connected to the school and the Aberdeen community.

Mission: To cultivate student belonging by promoting team-building activities and service opportunities that help them learn about and connect with their community.

Project Description: Scholar Breanna Wollman and educator Kerry Konda were seasoned teammates by the time they became Scholars, having been highly involved in their school’s speech and debate team. They noticed that after the pandemic and full return to in-person learning, students were still experiencing loneliness and needed opportunities to develop a sense of belonging at school. They quickly jumped into action, thinking about building off structures and initiatives already set up within the school. They recruited a team of 20 students and decided to focus on the newest arrivals to their school, first-year students. Every freshman is placed in a class they have until graduation called “super study,” in which they are with the same group of students. Team leaders join these classes to host activities focused on building relationships and connections while also offering opportunities for class community service, which the school supports by providing transportation for the service to occur during school hours.

As a student leader, Breanna is most proud of “the number of student groups that discovered the power of their agency when paired with the tenacity of the project mission and activities.”



Project Focus: Education Equity

Target Audience and Location: 7th-grade students at Penndale Middle School and high school mentors from North Penn High School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

Vision: Every historically marginalized student enthusiastically embraces educational opportunities and excels academically, discovering their limitless potential.

Mission: To empower and uplift marginalized students by connecting high school mentors with middle school students and addressing academic and behavioral challenges through tailored support that nurtures their intellectual growth and personal development.

Project Description: Scholar Yordanos Lemma and educator Scholar Carmina Taylor were passionate about education equity long before they became Scholars. This dynamic duo had already worked together in the Montgomery County Cultural Proficiency and Equity Student Ambassadors program, which develops student ambassadors from different schools with comprehensive skill sets to become resilient social justice advocates. Through their previous work together, they identified early on that they were most interested in centering their project on a mentoring program since there was a clear disparity between the number of students of color at Yordanos’ High School and those engaging in the advanced courses offered there. The mentoring program will serve as a crucial resource for 7th graders at a partner middle school, offering academic tutoring while building relationships and learning about educational equity and academic opportunities as they transition into high school. They collaborated with the administration so that high school mentors had permission and transportation support to travel to the middle school monthly for the mentoring sessions, ensuring they were accessible and inclusive to both parties.

As a student leader, Yordanos is most proud of “engaging a passionate and ambitious mentor team ready to change our community for the better.”

IGNITE logo - Rithika

IGNITE (Inspiring Growth, Nurturing Innovation and Teaching Empowerment)

Project Focus: STEM Equity and Access

Target Audience and Location: 7th and 8th graders at Oregon Middle School in Medford, New York, facing socioeconomic disadvantages, exhibiting low STEM scores, or having been identified by their teacher as needing additional academic support.

Vision: Middle school students evolve into innovative STEM leaders who drive change to enrich their communities.

Mission: To nurture middle school students’ passion for STEM learning by providing near-peer mentorship and interactive educational activities.

Project Description: Scholar Rithika Sivapokaran and educator Scholar Emily Rhome were committed to exploring project options. Rithika was passionate about STEM, and Emily was passionate about mental health. They both knew that economic disparities, academic challenges, and limited exposure to STEM courses could contribute to unequal opportunities for students, particularly those from low-income families. Eventually, they decided their project would address inequitable access to STEM learning opportunities for middle school students through a peer mentorship program. They patiently worked with school and district administration to get full support and approval for their project so that high school students could mentor middle schoolers on various STEM topics while employing social-emotional learning strategies. The mentoring program will feature sessions once a week for six weeks at a time, and then they plan to take their learning and conduct another block of six sessions before the academic year ends.

As a student leader, Rithika is most proud that “she patiently and successfully navigated my district’s approval process by addressing inquiries and enhancing my project proposal.”

Jr Tech Titians - Priyanka

Junior Tech Titans

Project Focus: Computer Science Equity and Access

Target Audience and Location: Fifth graders from Ballenger Creek Elementary (BCE), a school that feeds into Tuscarora High School (THS), and mentors in the Frederick County community in Maryland.

Vision: A world where elementary students from diverse backgrounds can realize their potential in computer science.

Mission: Motivating elementary school students to engage in computer science through fun and social coding activities with the help of mentors.

Project Description: Scholar Priyanka Gupta and educator Scholar Mary Bishop always knew they wanted to focus their Scholar project on computer science, something they were both passionate about. Over time, through thoughtful exploration with their community, their project emerged, and they never looked back. As a former IT professional and now STEM educator, Mary was familiar with being the only or one of the few women in her field. As a female and student of color passionate about computer science, Priyanka also noticed who was engaging in opportunities and who wasn’t. As they started to explore project options, they noted that there were computer science opportunities at the middle and high school levels but not at the elementary level. This began their journey to partner with a local elementary school and engage community mentors so that they could host fun coding activities for 5th graders during their library time, making sure it was accessible for all of them. Their long-term goal in exposing students to computer science earlier is that they will continue to engage in opportunities throughout their educational career, eventually choosing it as a career, diversifying the workforce overall.

As a student leader, Priyanka is most proud of “balancing all my coursework, extracurricular activities, and home responsibilities while planning my community change project. I am also very proud of officially launching our program in December!”

Minds Entwined logo

Minds Entwined

Project Focus: Mental Health

Target Audience and Location: Valencia High School students in Placentia, California.

Vision: Every student can access empathetic mental health support and resources so they don’t feel alone in their wellness journeys.

Mission: To cultivate a school-wide safe space through a wellness fair that allows students to connect through conversations, peer activities, and shared experiences.

Project Description: Scholar Amanda Liu and educator Scholar Will Truong were clear from the start that they wanted to create a project focused on mental health stigma and the growing mental health struggles they saw teens facing in their community. After research and much consideration, the team was excited to take on the challenge of creating a peer counseling program, knowing they would need to get administration and community buy-in before launching anything. As they were planning and laying the necessary groundwork, the district adopted a new policy that brought up confidentiality and safety concerns for students and confusion for school staff about what they might be required to inform student guardians about. The team made the difficult decision to pivot while still ensuring they stayed within their mission to provide mental wellness resources and foster connections between students. They are now planning a school-wide mental health resource fair and have plans to partner with many great community resources that will have a presence at the fair and activities for participants, like writing letters of affirmation and encouragement to use as a coping resource during times of stress.

As a student leader, Amanda is proud “that my educator and I were able to redirect our project from creating a peer counseling program to planning and hosting a mental wellness fair. We did this in response to a new district policy, and I am proud that we are still addressing and supporting mental health while centering the safety and best interests of students and staff.”

Mynd Revolution

Mynd Revolution

Project Focus: Mental Health

Target Audience and Location: Sandra Day O’Connor High School and Boulder Creek High School communities in Phoenix, Arizona.

Vision: A world where schools cultivate safe, compassionate environments and offer mental health resources so students and educators can thrive.

Mission: We advocate for and create wellness centers with school communities to prioritize mental health support and resources.

Project Description: Though Scholar Brendan Salisbury and educator supporter Ashley Halloff were not able to start working together until mid-way through the Scholar year, once they did they quickly formed a strong partnership. Brendan always knew his project would be centered on mental health per his own experience and witnessing so many peers in his community struggle with mental health illnesses, drug abuse and suicide. As a fierce advocate and systems strategist, he had ambitious plans to create wellness centers at every high school in his district. Since his high school already had the first and only wellness center in the district, they prioritized two high schools based on need and networks they already had established communication with. Brendan spearheaded media attention and fundraising early on, believing his project would get more traction if he came to schools with the funding needed to start the wellness centers. He then worked on building teams at his school and each of the two high schools, so he had a crew of student leaders, all advocating and working toward a common goal. By the close of the academic year, they hope to celebrate their efforts with two new wellness centers open and many more to come.

As a student leader, Brendan is most proud of “putting together a team that I am confident will carry on the legacy of mental health awareness and prioritization in our district. Nothing makes me happier than the beginnings of system change through youth advocacy.”

Project 80 Roots

Project 80 Roots

Project Focus: African American History

Target Audience and Location: Wider community of Dallas, TX.

Vision: All individuals buried at Champion-Macedonia Cemetery receive dignity and respect.

Mission: To honor the Champion-Macedonia Cemetery by hosting clean-up events, fundraising, and sharing the rich history and legacy of the individuals buried there.

Project Description: Scholar Victoria Myers and educator Scholar Rhonda Craven had many different ideas about what they should focus on and, for a while, thought they might focus their project on the needs of the unhoused. While they were exploring options, Victoria had already started a project for her Gold Award, the highest achievement within the Girl Scouts, and decided to evolve and scale that project as her Scholar project. As a student passionate about African-American history, Victoria discovered Champion-Macedonia Cemetery, a Black cemetery founded in the 1880s nestled between car lots and warehouses just off a main interstate. Victoria’s project engages and connects community members and students in helping her build awareness for the historic site. She built a team and will organize and host multiple work parties to clean up the location. She also aims to raise $20,000 to improve the landscaping and add an iron entryway gate, making it a well-known and welcoming historic community site for people to visit and learn more about the over 100 people buried there, many of whom were formerly enslaved.

As a student leader, Victoria is most proud of “the connections I've made with people across the country who are as excited as I am about the project.”

SAIF 2023-24 logo-ALA

South African Ideas Festival—Transforming Potential into Profession

Founding History: Since 2011, the Bezos Scholars Program has cultivated a committed partnership with the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Johannesburg, South Africa. ALA draws students from all over the continent, and every year, we collaborate to select a small team of students and one educator tasked with planning the annual South African Ideas Festival (SAIF), an entrepreneurial development festival. Each year the team chooses a theme to focus their efforts and impact on.

Project Focus: Employment Readiness

Target Audience and Location: Marginalized youth, ages 16-21, residing in underserved townships across Johannesburg, including Lanseria, Alexandra, Zandspruit and Cosmo City, where systemic inequality limits access to services and opportunities.

Vision: Generating a prosperous Africa driven by empowered young African leaders.

Mission: To ignite the employment readiness of historically marginalized youth by hosting accessible workshops and providing access to opportunities and resources.

Project Description: Scholars Ahmed Kabuya, Kenesa Huluka, Nassiratou Djibo, Chiagoziem Ikeyi and their educator Scholar Busola Oni, will host an in-person festival over a series of days at ALA. To ensure accessibility, they are providing transportation and food so students can come to the ALA campus for the festival. In collaboration with a team of 10 student interns, this year’s festival theme is “Transforming Potential into Profession” because their project seeks to combat youth unemployment in Johannesburg by offering vocational training and career readiness workshops. This community need arises from the broader issue of economic inequality and limited opportunities for young people in the region, especially those living in low-income areas/slums. They plan to provide career readiness training in interviewing, CV [resume] building, digital literacy and networking. By cultivating professional competencies, they hope to bridge the gap between education and employment, empowering youth with tools to achieve economic stability.

As student leaders, the ALA Scholar team is most proud of “making significant progress in developing partnerships with local organizations to provide skills training and internships.”

wellness 4 washtenaw logo


Project Focus: Mental Health

Target Audience and Location: Washtenaw International Middle Academy and Washtenaw International High School (WIMAHI) students in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Vision: All students have mental health resources so they can create lifelong healthy habits.

Mission: To increase students’ knowledge of and access to mental health resources by strengthening relationships with mental health providers.

Project Description: Scholar Dyuthi Aryasomayajula and educator Scholar Dan Giddings know mental health is essential to a healthy life and believe the global mental health crisis is a public health issue. They wanted to do something about it and initially considered bringing yoga and its benefits to students. After conducting extensive community engagement, they learned that students needed ways to better connect to and understand existing mental health resources. Especially students of color and those from low-income households who have less access to resources and may be more likely to face stigma for getting help. They attend a unique school that includes a middle and high school and have a four-member social service team (SST Team) that is struggling to assist their student body, with a population-to-provider ratio of 187:1. Dyuthi has built a team of students that meets regularly with the SST Team as well as leaders of various school clubs on campus so they can better understand the unique needs of different students. They work together to make direct referrals, encourage students to reach out for help, and work with the SST team on how they can better inform students about their services as well as those in the wider community. To support the middle schoolers, they will conduct workshops and presentations on a particular mental health condition each month and connect students to the Social Services Team for regular check-ins.

As a student leader, Dyuthi is proud to “through the Bezos Scholars Program and Wellness4Washtenaw, I have learned the value of community engagement. Our work is immensely fulfilling because it values community and collaboration, meaning that we are genuinely serving our target population in ways they find effective.”

Youth for HOPE logo

Youth for HOPE (Humanizing Our Period for Equity)

Project Focus: Period Poverty

Target Audience and Location: Individuals receiving support for homelessness and/or domestic violence in San Bernardino County, California.

Vision: Building a community where access to period products is an equal human right for every menstruating individual, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Mission: To advocate for and provide access to free period products to individuals lacking menstrual resources in San Bernardino County shelters through community fundraising and donations.

Project Description: Scholar Jessie Lin and educator Scholar James Wilson were passionate about women’s health equity and access long before they became Scholars. Before becoming a Scholar, Jessie learned more about period poverty, which occurs when people have insufficient access to menstrual products, education, and/or sanitation facilities because of their socio-economic status. She started gathering and soliciting menstruation supplies and donating them to local shelters. Eventually, her efforts grew, and she built a team of students and other supportive adults who wanted to help. As a Scholar, she built off previous efforts, evolving and scaling her project into something bigger. Her team recently successfully incorporated their project into an official nonprofit organization and built partnerships with local shelters while working on an online system so that those who need the resources they provide can easily find access to them. They have already donated over 3,500 products and aim to have donated 10,000 by the end of 2024.

As a student leader, Jessie is proud that “our team has reached out to over six local shelters and organizations and that we officially became registered as our own nonprofit.”

We are proud of all these Scholars, the team and community members they have engaged and the projects they developed to positively impact each of their communities! They are diligently working on carrying out the rest of their project activities before graduation and have been intentional in their planning to ensure projects are sustainable. The goal is for projects to continue for years to come, evolving as new student leadership and adult supporters carry it forward with continued funding support from the program and Bezos Family Foundation. Learn more about Community Change Projects.