Meet Our OppU Achiever: Melissa Khasbagan
We’re thrilled to announce the latest recipient of the $2,500 OppU Achievers Scholarship, Melissa Khasbagan. Melissa is a senior at Westlake High School and the founder of 1000 Books For, a nonprofit promoting educational equality and youth entrepreneurship.
Melissa strongly believes that everyone deserves access to education, no matter their background. “Everyone deserves to have a fair and proper education, at the minimum,” she said. She understands the importance of education, because her own was built on quality resources and mentorship. Her desire to share access to education is what has inspired her work from the very beginning.
After a family trip to inner Mongolia, Melissa was confronted with a hard truth about educational inequality – academic resources aren’t distributed equally, often greatly affecting disadvantaged and oppressed communities. She was struck by how her cousins lacked quality English materials and many had never spoken to a native English speaker before.
Melissa was determined to fix this.
She started 1000 Books For as a book drive to deliver reading materials to children in Mongolia.
Ultimately, it took over two years for Melissa to collect books from her community and meet her 1,000-book goal. She set up libraries in two orphanages in Mongolia to focus on giving quality resources to children with the most need. She also held English panels about the importance of learning languages as part of a globalized education.
When Melissa returned to Texas, she wanted to do more.
In 2018, Melissa founded 1000 Books For as a nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth changemakers. Today, the nonprofit works in nine countries with over 400 teachers and impacts over 35,000 students. Fun fact: it’s the only nonprofit organization that works with Mongolian youth across Mongolia, China, and Russia!
The nonprofit’s main initiatives focus on education and entrepreneurship, offering:
- An audiobook curriculum partnering with Texas-based teachers to record English children’s books accompanied by subtitles and vocabulary lessons.
- An online tutoring program for non-native English speaking teachers to practice their language skills.
- A podcast, The Teen Entrepreneur Podcast, in which Melissa interviews youth entrepreneurs from around the world – detailing their struggles and successes.
- A variety of one-day workshops, conferences, and summits. They co-hosted the first Youth Changemakers Conference in 2019 in Liberia, with Rehab Africa. Through fundraising, they were able to offer free attendance for over 150 youth.
Melissa’s largest goal for 2020 is launching Project 195. The project will create a social entrepreneurship tool kit available to youths across 195 countries. Users of the kit will learn how to start their own organizations, with topics including how to find team members and how to fundraise.
Among her achievements, Melissa is a public speaker appearing at SXSW Edu and SXSW this coming March. “The coolest thing that I’ve done so far is public speaking and trying to empower the next generation of youth,” she said.
When asked what piece of advice she’d give her peers, Melissa said, “don’t let your age define who you are.”
Young people are often hesitant to start a project because they fear failure. Their youth is an advantage not a hindrance. The best part of doing something as a teenager is being able to take risks, Melissa said. Market yourself and leverage your age to find support in the most unexpected places.
As for Melissa’s future plans, she will likely attend Stanford University next year. She plans to major in public policy and increase her knowledge of social inequality.
You can read more about Melissa’s achievements in her essay below.
Five years ago, I visited my cousin Sorgog in Inner Mongolia. She lived in a herding village, making the daily thirty-mile commute to school. I quickly noticed a discrepancy in education: in America I had world-class teachers and resources, but Sorgog and her classmates at Xilinhot Mongolian Middle School (with big dreams of becoming lawyers, doctors, and scientists) attended schools with sparse textbooks.
As a way of sharing what I love (novels) and what my cousins were missing (English teaching materials), I made a goal of providing one thousand English books for Mongolian students, deepening my relationship with my heritage. Achieving my initial goal in 2017 took over two years and required begging to neighbors, calling 37 bookstores, driving around Austin 89 times to collect book donations, and even driving to Mexico at night to distribute to local partners. And after contacting shipping companies, even taking suitcases of novels myself, I established two libraries in orphanages in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and helped set them up.
It wasn’t until I participated in a UPenn startup incubator that I learned I could do more than just a book project, which had never felt like enough. I was inspired to create real change. In 2018, I converted my project into a 501(c)3, 1000 Books For. But since I didn’t know how to create a nonprofit, the initial journey was not easy. The step-by-step running-a-nonprofit guides at my local libraries were not enough. Luckily, my friend’s dad agreed to teach me how to file nonprofit paperwork. Later, I went to the bank, opened an account, and cashed the first check myself – I felt like a #GIRLBOSS!
The first time I pitched 1000 Books For to donors, my hands trembled as I cried on stage. But, I learned from my first pitch it’s okay to fail. Each speaking engagement has been a chance to grow – I didn’t cry at SXSW EDU 2018 (but I was still nervous). At my most recent talk, a TEDx@Redmond presentation in front of 600 people, the only person crying was my third grade teacher, who drove over six hours to attend.
Just as Mongolian kids start by mounting a horse and advance to galloping on the grassland, my nonprofit has grown trot by trot, always wanting to impact more people. In addition to providing access to equal opportunities, 1000 Books For teaches youth they have the power to create a better world. In fact, we’re the only organization to be working with ethnic Mongolian students in rural areas across China, Mongolia, and Siberia. To date, 1000 Books For has turned from a small book project into an education and entrepreneurship 501(c)3 nonprofit, impacting over 400 teachers and 35,000 youth across nine countries.
To me, the process of discovering myself (through sleepless nights brainstorming ideas) and maximizing impact (through one-on-one student mentorship) is more important than any amount of external validation. I’m reminded of the bold power I, as a Mongolian-American youth, possess.
Could you or someone you know use $2,500 for tuition? To apply, submit a short essay through our web portal.
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