A new scholarship created by the Obama Foundation is awarding generous financial help to students who commit their careers to public service. In the inaugural cohort of 100 winners, two are from Arizona State University.
Ainor Elgamal, who is double majoring in political science along with public policy and public service, and Nnena Okuagu, who is double majoring in political science and justice studies, have won the Voyager Scholarship, a two-year program for U.S. students who want to pursue careers in public service.
The scholarship, for students in their junior and senior years of college, is funded by a $100 million personal contribution from Brian Chesky, the co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, to the Obama Foundation.
The winners, chosen from nearly 1,800 applicants, will receive:
- Up to $50,000 in financial aid to ease debt so that students can afford to pursue a career in public service.
- A $10,000 stipend and free Airbnb housing to pursue a summer work-travel experience between the junior and senior year of college that the students design themselves.
- A 10-year travel stipend, paid $2,000 a year for 10 years, to allow the winners to continue to broaden their horizons.
- The opportunity to meet former President Obama at a fall convening, where the winners will network with each other and hear Obama and Chesky discuss leadership and public service.
- Networking throughout the program through an ongoing speaker series and membership in the Obama Foundation.
Elgamal, who is from Avondale, Arizona, said she found out about the scholarship through an email.
“I saw that it was for juniors, for public service and for people interested in doing a travel experience to expand their knowledge so it was like, check, check and check,” she said.
The winners are allowed to design their own trip based on what they want to do in their careers. Elgamal, whose family immigrated from Egypt, is passionate about working in immigration reform.
“I want to go to Barcelona because I want to learn more about immigration law in other countries and how successful immigration policies can be applied in the U.S.,” she said.
“I know what it’s like to come to a country and navigate your way, and I’m hoping for it to be easier and less stressful so people can pursue a better life.”
Elgamal, who would like to become an immigration lawyer and work at a nonprofit, said that the application process was helpful.
“You have to think about your issue area and why you’re pursuing the degree you’re pursuing and how it relates to public service, and that really motivated me,” she said.
“Even if I had not gotten the scholarship, just being able to reflect on what I want to do made me even more passionate about my career in public service.”
Okuagu, who is from Casa Grande, Arizona, said that in May, a friend forwarded a post on Michelle Obama’s Instagram account announcing the scholarship.
“I thought, ‘This is a national scholarship, so it’s definitely a long shot, but I should apply,’'” she said.
Last summer, as she was navigating the application, she also was in the process of adding a major of justice studies and switching from a Bachelor of Arts to a Bachelor of Science in political science because she had found her passion area.
Okuagu was inspired to consider law school and a career in reforming the justice system after taking Introduction to Justice Studies with Christine Holman, a senior lecturer in the School of Social Transformation, and a persuasive writing course with Kenneth Ladenburg, an English instructor.
“Those two classes allowed me to explore where this injustice is happening and how it directly affects Black and brown communities and how nothing is being done about it,” she said.
She learned about how prisoner labor is exploited, how overworked public defenders can’t provide adequate representation and how difficult it is for formerly incarcerated people to reintegrate into society.
“I want to go to law school and come up with some ideas of what to do,” she said.
Okuagu is still in the process of deciding what her travel experience will be next year. She is hoping to have an internship with REFORM Alliance, an organization that works to change policies on probation and parole.
Former President Barack Obama joined a Zoom call with the winners a few months ago.
“He gave us encouraging words and told us he’s proud of us and that there’s a reason we’re here,” Okuagu said.
“It meant a lot to hear that from the former president of the United States.”
Applications for the next round of Voyager Scholarships will open next year.
Kyle Mox, associate dean for national scholarships advisement, said that any student or recent graduate of ASU is welcome to get support in applying for scholarships or fellowships from the Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement at ASU.
“We work with both undergraduates and graduate students from all campuses, both on-campus and online students,” he said.
“Our advisors have significant experience and expertise in helping students prepare competitive applications for national scholarships. Applicants are often surprised by how much attention we will show their essays. It’s common to write five to 10 drafts for a single 500-word essay, and we’re eager to help at any step of the process.
Visit the ONSA website to search the scholarships database, review a calendar of upcoming information sessions and workshops, and subscribe to a weekly email bulletin, which provides details about upcoming events and deadlines.
Top photo by Deanna Dent/Arizona State University
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