Riana Shah, an 18-year-old graduate of Bard High School Early College in New York City, received the 2011 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes for the organization she created to bring educational and social change to her native India.
While growing up in India, Riana Shah experienced an education system based largely on memorization. After moving to the U.S. a few years ago and attending Bard High School Early College in New York City, Shah realized her powers of independent thought were limited because of the education system she had been raised in. She became determined to make a change in her native country's approach to teaching its young people and created a program called Independent Thought and Social Action in India (ITSA India) to help high school students in India hone their writing, critical thinking, and discussion skills, with the hope of promoting social change.
For her innovative and inspiring work, Shah was awarded The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes in September. The annual prize, created a decade ago by children's author T.A. Barron in memory of his mother, honors 25 outstanding young people from across the U.S. who have carried out a significant project to help others and/or the environment. Winners each receive $2,500 to be applied to their service project or higher education.
Shah, 18, saw her new curriculum implemented in two Indian schools last summer. With the help of supporters she has trained both in India and at her former high school, Shah expanded her program to 14 schools this summer, and plans to more than double that number within the next few months.
Shah says she was surprised when she learned she'd been awarded the Barron Prize. "I do not consider myself a hero for doing the work that I do," she explains. "I am simply taking the opportunity I was given and taking it back to my home country, hoping to create cross-cultural connections."
As for her future plans: "Through ITSA, we hope to help the next generation think critically and creatively and act effectively to improve their communities," says Shah, who is now studying education reform in college. She also hopes to inspire other young people to make a difference. "No one is ever too young to make a difference in the world," she says. "The world is at a time when every kind word, every good deed, and every smile you put on someone's face counts. The time is now to make a difference, you just have to take the leap and believe in yourself."
For more information on The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, including a complete list of this year's winners and instructions on how to nominate a young hero in your community, visit www.barronprize.org.