AAUW Diversity Awards in APIA Heritage Month
By Jackie Bong-Wright
Springfield and Annandale Students Honored
Can a black-belt Tae Kwon Do Junior and the winner of a Diversity Award be one and the same person? Yes, indeed. Michelle Chandansingh has not only kept herself in such good shape that she became a martial arts instructor at Kim’s Karate, but she stays fit intellectually as well.
Michelle’s parents come from Suriname, formerly Dutch Guyana, on the northern coast of South America, and her great-grandparents were from India. She says she learned leadership skills in the Student Government Association at Robert Lee High School in Springfield, Virginia. She maintained excellent grades, and became a member of the National Honor Society, the Spanish Honor Society, and the Math Honor Society. She also tutored her peers.
Michelle, now 17, didn’t stop there. She organized the school’s Homecoming ball and also chaired International Night, where ethnic students displayed their arts and crafts, performed their ethnic dances, and sang folkloric songs. She put on “Treat Night,” where students went to a local elementary school at Halloween and decorate a haunted house. She visited a disadvantaged school and left school supplies as presents. At Christmas, she adopted “angels” from an “angel tree” filled with the names of needy children, and bought gifts for them in Springfield Mall
Now Michelle is one of four area young women honored by the Association of American University Women (AAUW) with that organization’s Diversity Award. She was selected for her commitment to academic excellence and her devotion to social causes.
Elizabeth (Liz) Weiderhold is another AAUW Diversity Award recipient. She ranks in the top half-percent of her West Springfield High School class, and her cumulative GPA is 4.00. She was a Magna Cum Laude in the National Latin Exam, and an enrollee in the Challenging Honors and Advanced Placement Classes.
A Girl Scout since 1994, she excels in swimming, rowing, and indoor track, and received the Northern Region Athletic Scholar Award in 2003 and 2004. Liz’ long list of activities includes section editor of her high school yearbook, managing editor of her high school newspaper, and participating in the Understanding People’s Program, an outreach effort aimed at teaching elementary school students about discrimination, racism, stereotyping and bullying.
When racial tensions ran high at her school because of different interpretations of the Confederate Flag, Liz tackled the topic by exchanging letters in the school paper with another student. That opened the eyes of both sides on this controversial issue, and defused the conflict. Liz exuded excellence and won widespread applause.
JeNaye Johnson of Lake Braddock Secondary School, another AAUW awardee, mixes with a large number of different nationalities, in particular her own African-American group. Besides being active in ten rigorous Honor classes and 3 Advanced Placement courses, she was in the 98th percentile for the PSAT. She stands to become a Commended Student and/or a National Achievement semi-finalist.
JeNaye has distinguished herself in community activities. She plays the flute in the marching and concert bands and is vice president of the Ecology Club and secretary of the Key Club, volunteering at the National Symphony Orchestra. As vice president of People Around the World Club, she created a website that informed members about weekly presentations on foreign countries and how to make contact with one another.
A committee member of her school’s International Show, JeNaye has volunteered to stay after school to plan and organize participants. She created a website for the show. She says she wants to leave a good legacy and clear guidelines for new club members after she graduates. As if she did not have enough to do, she also volunteers at the Kennedy Center in the Instrument Petting Zoo program, in which students of all ages are introduced to musical instruments. In the summer, she was a counselor-in-training at White Oaks Rec-Pac.
JeNaye was honored for touching the lives and hearts of so many individuals through her dedication to helping others.
The last awardee was Lekha Menon, whose parents are from India. She recently lost her grand-mother, and says that AAUW recognition came as a great consolation for her and her family. Lekha goes every Friday to Weyanoke Elementary School to tutor younger students in English-as-a-second language. She is also news editor of her school newspaper, of which she will be co-editor-in-chief next year.
A member of the National Honor Society and treasurer of the French Society, Lekha is also an International Baccalaureate diploma candidate, taking six IB classes. This earned her a GPA of 4.07 at Annandale High School. She enrolled in a college-level physics class at Harvard the summer after her sophomore year.
Lekha has been trained in Indian classical dance, Bhararnatyam, for eight years, and uses it to share her South Asian culture and enrich the colorful tapestry of American life. Her leadership role at school, her willingness to take risks, her charismatic personality, and her dedication to the Literacy Program she developed earned her this award.
AAUW Advocates Diversity for Women and Girls
AAUW Springfield-Annandale which presented these awards, is a sorority branch of AAUW Virginia, which in turn is a part of a national organization, established in 1921, that merged the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (formed in 1881) and the Southern Association of College Women. It has 160,000 members and more than 1,600 branches nationwide. Its mission is to promote equity for all women and girls, lifelong education and societal change.
The AAUW Educational Foundation advances education, research and self-development for women through fellowships and grants. In 2003, AAUW also founded a Leadership and Training Institute, which helps women and girls acquire leadership skills.
AAUW’s national board also encourages members of under-represented groups to apply for leadership positions. It started admitting minorities in the 1940s, taking its first steps toward becoming a multi-cultural organization.
Three years ago, the Springfield-Annandale branch started the Diversity Project, giving awards to five deserving area high school students that it hopes will serve as role models.
AAUW’s Awards Committee chair, Joanna Shows, told the audience at this year’s Diversity Awards presentation how Wangari from Kenya decided to plant trees and to urge others to do the same.
Wangari was accused of subversion by her government, and arrested and beaten many times. But she persevered until 30 million trees had been planted across Africa. For her tireless effort, called the Green Belt Movement, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance speech, she said, “When we plant trees, we plant seeds of peace and seeds of hope. We also secure the future for our children. I call on those around the world to celebrate by planting a tree wherever you are…We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own.”
Healing wounds and planting seeds of reconciliation in people from diverse origins are among the AAUW’s highest goals – goals the organization shares with the Asian Pacific Islanders Heritage Celebration this month.