Amira Chowdhury, an 18-year-old senior at Hoover High School and first-generation American, recently beat about 80,000 other applicants to become a 2018 Coca-Cola Scholar, adding to her already long list of achievements.
Chowdhury is now one of the 150 students chosen to receive a $20,000 scholarship, an annual award given by the Coca-Cola Scholarship Foundation.
She endured a three-round selection process, where the list of hopefuls was whittled down by their academic profiles, then reduced further based on their community service histories. The finalists were selected after interviews with program alumni as well as Coca-Cola officials.
The selection opens access to a network of other winners and, of course, substantial aid toward college. While Chowdhury, who grew up in a low-income home in Bangladesh, appreciates the college funds, she's already accepted a full-ride scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania but will put the money toward academics.
Last year, Chowdhury co-founded a nonprofit called Peerlift. It's designed to connect high school students, particularly those from low-income families, with proven college opportunities such as internships, summer programs and scholarships. The idea came from her own experience as a first-generation student navigating the college application process.
Peerlift is also why she sought the Coke scholarship. While serving as a California delegate for the United States Senate Youth Program, she made friends with young people who were previous Coke scholars, and they touted the program. She is now working with members of the 2017 Coca-Cola Scholarship class to expand Peerlift opportunities.
Chowdhury came to the United States in 2012 and attended sixth through eighth grades in Arizona. She said she grew up in an environment that did not emphasize education for women — her mother never went beyond the equivalent of the eighth grade.
Just three weeks into sixth grade, Chowdhury remembers when an Arizona state representative visited her class and handed out a flier about college.
"I read a pie chart that said there was a 58% male-to-female ratio at [Arizona State University]," she said. "I remember staring at it for a good two minutes because I was stunned. How was that even possible?"
Chowdhury said she credits much of her success to Jennifer Earl, principal at Hoover High.
"She takes care of each and every student at Hoover like her own. She has made me believe in myself unlike anyone else," Chowdhury said. "She has given me confidence in my ability and has made me feel hopeful when I felt hopeless."
When not meeting with President Trump through the Senate Youth program or working as the student board member for the Glendale Unified School District, Chowdhury said she likes to spend time with her friends and explore different fields of interest online when she's alone.
Her advice to incoming seniors and all students is simple: seek opportunities beyond the immediate community and don't be afraid to apply.
"No one thought an immigrant with five years in the country, who survived on food stamps, would represent California in the Youth Senate, and get scholarships like Coca-Cola," she said. "These are things no one expects a low-income, first-generation student to do. But I was able to because I had gained the courage to seek opportunities beyond Glendale."