Riyah Patel, 2023 NextGen Award recipient
Founder of New American Scholars
Introduced in 2023, the NextGen Award recognizes the accomplishments of a young leader who has gone above and beyond to support others in their community. The first recipient is Riyah Patel, a 17-year-old from Concord who founded New American Scholars, a nonprofit that provides academic assistance, social support and leadership development to refugee and immigrant students in New Hampshire.
How was New American Scholars created?
During Covid, I struggled with my education in a way that I was not used to before. I spoke with my mom, who is an immigrant. Her parents struggled and couldn’t help her through school. She had no guidance; she didn’t speak the language.
She had felt isolated, alone — a lot like I had felt during Covid. She was unable to break a cultural barrier to communicate with her teachers. I realized if that’s how my mom had been feeling without Covid, what were kids like my mom feeling with Covid?
There are people in this country who are forcefully taken from their homes, being placed here in an education system that they don’t understand, and now being put into online learning. Talk about a challenge.
So, I started New American Scholars in the summer of 2021. I met with refugee kids in the library to figure out where they were academically. Not only did I want to make sure that they understood the material, I wanted to make sure that they knew how to teach themselves and to speak to teachers and classmates.
This lack of confidence in these kids and feeling disconnected from their schools has led them to want to leave New Hampshire and go to other states where there are better supports tied to communities. We can’t just bring in diverse people and then not provide the supports they need to be successful. I love New Hampshire, and I want it to feel like home for them.
What message do you have for others to take action?
I would love to see my fellow peers feel empowered to do the same thing in another facet of their community. There’s so much that we can do for our communities, for the world. They need young people to step up.
Don’t be dissuaded by feeling like you’re the youngest person in the room. There is never any reason that you cannot create change. Our inaction is not doing the world any good. I believe that anyone can break through these barriers and help their community regardless of age.
How did you get support from the community?
Not only did I have to speak incredibly well and be very poised, but project my voice. I knew that if I couldn’t be taken seriously, then these kids’ voices would not get heard. I would not be able to bring back the resources kids’ need to succeed. So, it was on me to be able to present myself as a knowledgeable adult, even if I was just a kid.
And being a kid, people don’t take you seriously; they don’t take these refugee kids seriously when they’re asking for help. When I realized that this is not just a small problem, that was my moment to move beyond people defying me, saying, “you’re only 15, you can’t really do anything.” Watch me.