Meet Our OppU Achiever: Sarah Raza
We’re thrilled to announce the latest recipient of the $2,500 OppU Achievers Scholarship, Sarah Raza. Sarah is a senior at Redmond High School and the founder of AWARE, a nonprofit that promotes inclusion for students with special needs.
Sarah credits her family and faith for her community-service mindset. It’s always been a prominent focus in her life, as some of her earliest memories are volunteering on family trips to Pakistan. It wasn’t until middle school, however, that Sarah started pursuing her own volunteer opportunities, such as that with the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation.
“That was definitely the first time I realized that taking lead on your own can end up making such a big impact in whatever role you’re in,” she said.
Sarah has had two defining life moments that propelled her on the path to creating the nonprofit Aware. First was her decision to wear hijab, which produced a range of reactions—some positive, some negative—from family and friends. But she held fast and learned from the experience, renouncing the prejudice that she experienced.
On her decision to wear hijab, Sarah says it was a watershed moment in her personal development. As a first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim, she says that growing up was a mix of two very different cultures. She felt like it was time to fully embrace what had previously been more fragmented parts of her identity and stand proudly as the person she is.
This notion of identity and internal conflict became increasingly important in Sarah’s volunteer work. It made her more conscious of the internalized problems that others face.
“I think we’re all always happy on the outside, but there’s so much going on inside and we can all always be helping each other,” she said. “I think it helps me always think a little deeper than just the surface level.”
The second life-changing experience for Sarah was assisting in babysitting her friend’s younger sister, Samantha, who has autism. She expressed how grateful she is to Samantha for being so open and genuine, and she remembered her own experiences being approached coldly and returning that same energy.
But Samantha “was so willing to be happy and to be nice,” Sarah said, adding that “not even for a second did she think of being cold towards me or to avoid me.”
After disregarding an entire subset of the student population, Sarah was forced to reckon with her hypocrisy. It was humbling.
“Regardless of who you are there are always ways to improve and be better,” she said. The experience left her hopeful that there will be “more [positive] experiences like that in our world in the future.”
Now on to Aware, which is Sarah’s favorite subject.
Aware is dedicated to bridging the gap between club members and special needs students. It recruits high school students to start local chapters, and through the club, members work to ensure that school-sponsored events are accessible and inclusive. Aware clubs also host their own activities and meet ups, which are a great time for everyone to socialize and form genuine relationships.
After Sarah’s two life-changing experiences, she knew that she wanted to get involved with the special education and special needs community. However, joining an already established organization didn’t address her school’s particular need and didn’t feel like enough for Sarah. A friend recommended HERlead, a mentorship program run by Ann Taylor. By reading the inspiring stories of what girls in Sarah’s age cohort were achieving, she had her first epiphany that her mission was achievable.
“I wanted to create this huge thing in my school, but after reading those stories I was like it’s actually not far-fetched,” she said. “It was one of those totally cheesy moments,” she added, laughing.
The process to form Aware was met with plenty of setbacks, including a huge investment of time and energy with no guarantee of success, as well as administrative bureaucracy and skepticism. Luckily, a new special education teacher started at Redmond High and was just as enthusiastic about Aware’s potential as Sarah was. The teacher’s support was key to getting the program running.
To Sarah’s surprise, the first meeting of Aware had an overflowing room. Sarah recalled that they were all shocked, but in a good way—they hadn’t expected so much interest, but it was exactly what they wanted. Despite starting later in the year, after most students were already invested in other clubs and extracurricular, Aware received an overwhelming show of support. From there, it exploded.
Sarah spent hours every day trying to grow Aware to other local schools. She’d call, email, and visit in the hopes of inspiring one more student to start up a chapter. The process was daunting and more than a little discouraging, she said. On Fridays, she would reflect on the week and feel like she’d accomplished nothing.
What kept her going? Thinking back to that first meeting. It made Sarah feel like if she could reach just one other passionate person, she’d keep doing what it takes.
“Once you have one success, remembering that success kind of takes you through the failures,” she said.
Then, something unexpected happened again.
Once Aware started opening chapters in other schools, the momentum kept building and pretty soon people started reaching out to Sarah.
For instance, at Newport High School there was a club focused solely on autism awareness that wanted to become more inclusive of all special needs students. They reached out to Sarah and became an Aware club.
This is what Sarah thinks of when you ask her about successes. All of her hard work paid off.
With five chapters, Aware is growing quickly in the Seattle area. When asked if they’ll expand to other states in the future, Sarah said it’s “[d]efinitely a plan.” In fact, a chapter in Baltimore, Maryland, will be created soon.
Outside of Aware, Sarah’s main activity is speech and debate club. She’s president this year and working on passing on leadership.
“I think speech and debate—when I think about what activity I’ve done in high school that’s kind of been the most beneficial or the most helpful in terms of building my own skills—speech and debate is up there,” she said.
Sarah graduates in June and will be attending Stanford in the fall. She’s found someone to hand over the reins of Aware to, but will stay on in an advisory role. Ultimately, though, Sarah would like to phase herself out so that Aware remains “a program run by high schoolers for high schoolers, because I think that’s part of what makes it special,” she said.
Sarah is undecided on her major, but is considering several options including politics and maybe even philosophy.
“I always think in terms of career and not in terms of school, because…what gets me excited isn’t academic learning, it’s doing, it’s things like Aware,” she said. “I’m trying to be a little less planned.”
In true changemaker fashion, Sarah has already pursued incredible opportunities for Aware including a three-month program that propels social innovation projects, pitching for SVP Fast Pitch, and being one of six T-Mobile Changemakers Challenge winners. After pitching AWARE to senior T-Mobile executives, she secured $10,000 in funding as well as advice from T-Mobile’s business teams.
“I definitely want to continue on this pathway of ‘changemaker-ness,’” Sarah said. “I want to keep doing something where I’m directly interacting with people and really helping almost change the world,” she said, adding “which sounds so big, but it doesn’t have to be big.”
When asked what advice she would give to other young people looking to make a difference, she said “nothing is ever impossible, unless you make it impossible.” “It’s all a mental thing,” she added, mentioning that everyone around her has always been skeptical of her being able to achieve all she has. She warned that there will always be skeptical people out there, but “if you think you can do it then you really can do it.”
You can read more about Sarah and the nonprofit, Aware, in her essay below.
When I started wearing hijab, life as I knew it changed. The welcoming halls of my school became daunting, filled with uncomfortable stares and nervous glances.
To me, accepting this was impossible. So, I embraced my chatty nature and started the conversation about why I wear hijab. Once those around me realized I was the patriotic American Muslim they had always known, I was surrounded by smiles again. Because of this experience, I promised myself that I would never unjustly judge others.
Then, Samantha showed me my hypocrisy.
When my friend first asked me to help babysit her younger sister who has autism, I was wary. Like everybody else, I subconsciously feared Samantha. My only memories were of her yanking my cousin’s glasses off during a dinner party. So, when I saw Samantha running towards me, I was terrified. I flinched as she invaded my personal space, but the attack I expected never happened. Instead, her brow scrunched together as she felt the fabric of my hijab. Then, she enveloped me in a hug.
Throughout the summer, my friendship with Samantha blossomed. I learned that Samantha was a far cry from aggressive. Rather, every time she had an outburst it was completely justified—who wouldn’t get frustrated if no one could understand them?
At the end of every day, there was a weight on my shoulders. I realized I had been unfairly judging people like Samantha, breaking my pledge. Despite going to school with students with special needs my entire life, I had never bothered to even try and converse with them. Unable to sit idly, I decided to take action.
I worked with special and general education students to develop AWARE. We coordinate with the students and staff to ensure students with special needs can participate in every school event, ranging from art club to homecoming. Simultaneously, we arrange bimonthly meetings for all students to do activities, have fun, and most of all form authentic friendships.
As I saw AWARE’s profound impact on my school, I set out to expand it across the nation. Many told me that this undertaking was unachievable, but I knew better than to listen to pessimists. There were times where it really did feel impossible. We would email and call schools numerous times, simply asking to present, and never get a response. Other times, we would spend months working with a student helping her start an AWARE chapter, only to have her decide she was no longer interested and have to start the entire process from the beginning. However, in the end, it has all undeniably been worth it.
Today, AWARE is a registered 501c3 organization that has raised $15,000 in funding and is impacting over 300 students across three school districts in the state of Washington. In June, we will open our first out of state chapter in Baltimore. AWARE has made fighting for equality my life’s mission. With effort and grit, the improbable becomes a reality.
Could you or someone you know use $2,500 for tuition? To apply for the OppU Achievers Scholarship, submit a short essay through our web portal.
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