Three Westwood Students Receive Congressional Award Gold Medal Recognition

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Photo By Vibha Velur

Vibha Velur ’23 poses at a volunteer event she organized for the ROHI. Velur was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her dedication to community service. “[My goal was to] instill interest and love for the sport of volleyball in younger kids everywhere,” Velur said.

By Hannah Ashtari, Managing Editor

Considered vital to shaping the character and values of youth, volunteer service is one of the most essential ways in which individuals can practice expressing gratitude towards their communities. For many students, completing community service hour requirements is one of the most fundamental undertakings of their time in school; for Vinayak Joglekar ‘22, Sohum Sharma ‘23, and Vibha Velur ‘23, it has been a different project entirely, one driven by passion and drive to distinguish themselves from their peers with their appreciation for the value of service in regards to self-development.

In true Westwood tradition, the three have gone about the achievement in an exceptional way, all earning the highest distinction possible of the government-sponsored Congressional Award program: the Gold Medal. Receiving the award requires candidates to fulfill the criteria of four different categories designed to help students broaden their horizons: Voluntary Public Service, Personal Development, Physical Fitness, and Exploration or Expedition.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I was much of an artsy person before I started, but as I naturally did the hundred or a little over a hundred [hour requirement for the Personal Development], I found I kind of liked art. You can find new passion through the project, which is really nice,” Joglekar said.

For Joglekar, the local nonprofit Generation SERVE was the outlet in which he invested the most time of his volunteer pursuits. Joglekar is a team lead for the organization, and the role has provided him the opportunity to organize different events with important members of his community, and taught him even more about the value of the goals the Congressional Award Program promotes. 

“My job as a team lead is to organize activities for families and lead the activities. Before COVID there used to be [volunteer activities] for senior homes but that’s not really possible anymore, because of health circumstances. But they can range from homeless shelters to pet shelters, and park cleanups, things of that nature, “ Joglekar said. “Most people do it for the hours. But the thing is, as I continued to volunteer, I realized how much gratitude and humility it taught me, serving other people.”

Velur also prioritized these values when taking the steps to earn her Congressional Award. Like Joglekar, Velur was able to involve herself in helping the senior community during the pandemic. 

“I volunteered at SAIVA, which is an organization to help combat elderly isolation. So during the pandemic – it was so sweet – they made masks, and we had weekly cooking classes, [and yoga] and [it was] adorable,” Velur said. 

The Congressional Medal wasn’t limited to just volunteerism, however. All three students were challenged to explore different areas in their lives they didn’t have experience with, like art, in the personal development and exploration categories. Velur chose to pursue building her leadership skills to fill these requirements. 

“I did my silver award with Girl Scouts through the Latinitas organization in downtown Austin. I made a whole drone curriculum, and we fundraised and got [the girls in the program] them drone kits and they got to build their own, so that was fun,” Velur said. “And then for my gold award, club volleyball was getting really expensive, so a lot of kids weren’t getting to play, so I made my own website with drills and stuff. I made my own clinic, I coached the teams. So I kind of brought the volleyball program back to life at the local YMCA.”

All three students involved themselves extensively in important projects throughout the earning of the medal, in the end receiving one of the most prestigious awards for American youth. For Joglekar, the knowledge and experience gained from the dedication required for the Congressional Award have been more invaluable than the recognition.

“It’s easier if you have the passion for a lot of the things,” Joglekar said. “Obviously if you don’t have a lot of passion for it, it’s going to be hard to actually stay committed throughout a year-long, maybe two-year-long thing. Especially over COVID, it [was] ten times harder. But if you definitely have that passion I would say it’s something to go for. It teaches you a lot about maturity and growing up, and definitely how to serve other people.”

The annual Congressional Gold Medal ceremony will be held online in summer 2022. To learn more about the award and its recipients, visit this website.