Shefali Kotta Madhusudhan, who graduated last month from West Windsor Plainsboro High School South, New Jersey, has put in more than 800 hours work in community volunteering, personal development, and physical fitness activities.
Her brother Aditya, who graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in biomedical engineering and who is pursuing graduated studies at Boston University, also completed more than 1,300 hours in community volunteering and other personal development activities.
The siblings were among this year's recipients of the Congressional Award Gold Medal, the highest honour of the United States Congress for young Americans for community service and personal development.
For Tina Sankhla of Toms River, New Jersey, too, it was a family affair. Her brother Neal received it last year and she won the medal this year.
Among the other recipients of South Asian origin this year were Dr Shaheen Lakhan of Arleta, California; Shetty Shohan of North Palm Beach, Florida; Amoha Bajaj of Montgomery, New Jersey; Shabnum Gulati of Edison, New Jersey; and Sheel Tyle of Pittsford, New York.
The Congressional Award, established in 1979, is for those aged 14 to 23 years. Participants in the programme earn bronze, silver and gold Congressional award certificates and bronze, silver and gold medals depending on their level of achievement.
Each level involves setting goals in four programme areas: Volunteer public service, personal development, physical fitness, and expedition/exploration.
This year, 237 youngsters qualified for the gold medal. Among them, 150 received the medal at a ceremony in Washington, DC, June 19. Several members of Congress attended the event. Those who qualified but did not attend will be presented the medal locally at separate ceremonies.
Shefali Kotta Madhusudan, who the RWJ University Hospital Hamilton's Junior Volunteer Program recently honored for the highest number of hours of service and for her contributions to the programme, said she is very passionate about pursuing a career in healthcare.
She has raised funds for community awareness programmes and has participated in the Verizon Literacy Walk in Trenton, New Jersey. For her personal development Shefali learned about publicity, marketing, box office, participant surveys, audience interface, and special events through activities with the Trenton Film Festival and Princeton Rep Shakespeare theater company.
She also conducted research and prepared an educational brochure on colonial gardening for the historic Trent House in Trenton. She accomplished her physical fitness goal of decreasing her running mile time by daily track and field exercise and participating in competitive races.
For her exploration/expedition goal, she experienced country living on an English farm, participated in English holiday traditions such as Boxing Day and learned to make pudding.
"It was a challenging experience but definitely worth it to participate in the Congressional Award Program," Shefali told rediff India Abroad. "It was a great learning experience for me, and I had lots of fun working on different projects and traveling to England."
Shefali has been with her school's concert choir, which has performed in St Petersburg, Russia. She participated in the track and field junior varsity team and the Red Cross, Unity Day and enjoys playing soccer. She is looking forward to joining the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University, and continuing to volunteer and travel.
"Earning this award has made me realise the great value of contributing back to one's community," Aditya Madhusudan told rediff India Abroad. "I plan to continue my volunteer efforts and hope to inspire fellow citizens to do the same."
In the award programme, Aditya volunteered at the RWJ hospital and his township's volunteer fire department and rescue squad.
He helped transport and manage patients to hospitals and last summer fought a fire in Plainsboro township that could have destroyed a shopping plaza. The experience left him with a deeper appreciation for firefighters, he said.
For personal development, he became a certified New Jersey state firefighter and a nationally certified emergency medical technician. He accomplished his physical fitness goal through rigorous physical training and exercise and passing the firefighter physical exam.
For expedition, Aditya travelled to England, visiting hamlets, villages and cities to study medieval architecture and to observe the styles the English had incorporated in their towns. He also explored the Amish way of life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
At the Washington ceremony, Aditya received the gold medal from US Representative Rush Holt.
Tina Sankhla volunteered at the local hospital and at the local library as a teen book reviewer where she read and reviewed 35 books.
She also volunteered at the local Young Men's Christian Association where she was an assistant swim instructor. For personal development, she joined her high school's acting team. She improved her physical fitness by being a member of her high school's tennis and lacrosse teams.
For expedition, she took an eight-day trip to Mexico where she visited the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. Participating in the award program has allowed her to set and meet challenging goals while pursuing an array of her interests during her high school career, she said.
Dr Shaheen Lakhan, a young biochemist and medical scientist, as part of his voluntary public service, worked as the executive director of the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation to help those with neurological and mental health disorders.
He contributed to Brain Blogger, a blog on the biological, psychological and social aspects of health. For personal development, he expanded his knowledge base on non-profit leadership, small group communication, fundraising, and information technology.
With specific educational objectives and tasks, he led a focused effort to improve his management skills. He successfully took on the physical fitness challenge to improve his track and field performance. For expedition, he opted for life on the camping grounds.
"Not only does the Congressional Award establish an incentive for our nation's youth to rise to the challenge -- academically, morally, and physically -- it also provides a means for intense self-reflection when documenting our journey," he told rediff India Abroad.
He administers a host of projects -- in bioethics, biotechnology, emergency management, global philanthropy, proteomics, and psychiatry, among others. He underwent extensive training, completing undergraduate and graduate programs in several interdisciplinary fields in Asia, Central America, the Middle East and the US.
Sheel Tyle undertook volunteer public service activities in his community. He spent over 500 hours working in the India Community Center, the Hindu Temple and the Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York.
For personal development, Sheel participated in debate and science competitions. His physical fitness goals included those in rowing and tennis that he successfully met. For expedition, he spent time alone in India, and picked up Hindi.
Sheel, who graduated from Pittsford Mendon High School in Rochester, will be attending Stanford University this fall. He is one of 25 students selected from a nationwide pool of 65,000 students, to receive the Scholar Athlete Milk Mustache of the Year award, and will appear in a 'Got Milk?' advertisement, to run in USA Today and ESPN Magazine.
He has also won academia-based scholarships, each worth $10,000, from Coca-Cola and Toyota. He has been the captain of the Pittsford Mendon's Section V Class AA-winning tennis team for the past two years. He also participates in science research competition, being a three-time finalist at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
"My participation in the Congressional Award has made me a well-rounded person, giving me the skill to continue to serve my community in the future," Sheel told rediff India Abroad.
Amoha Bajaj, who just graduated from high school, has been working for this award since ninth grade. She has completed over 500 hours in the categories of personal development, physical fitness, community service and camps/expeditions.
For personal development, she learned classical as well as contemporary and fusion dance. For physical fitness, she played on her school's tennis team for three years. For community service, she accumulated over 500 hours as a volunteer at Kimball Medical Center and Princeton Medical Center.
And for the expedition section, she planned trips, including one to Maryland and Virginia where she lived on a farm and learned how to use felt wool to make products.
Shabnum Gulati, a 12th grader at John P Stevens High School in Edison, New Jersey, completed over 400 hours of voluntary public service at the RWJ University Hospital. For personal development, she has been taking Indian classical vocal lessons for the last eight years.
For her physical fitness goals, she took lessons in classical Odissi dance. Her expedition/exploration goals took her to a 15-day Odissi workshop in India. She was a part of a travelling troupe that performed at seven venues across India.
Shabnum participates in the Model United Nations Club in her school as well as the Future Business Leaders of America Club, in which she has won awards in regional and state competitions.