Leave it to tech billionaires to try to reinvent college scholarships.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, who serves as president of the family foundation, last week announced the 100 winners of their Rise Talent Competition, a new kind of youth talent contest that promises to provide a lifetime of financial backing toward winners’ education and business endeavors.
The premise of the effort is that traditional scholarships are too narrowly focused on academic metrics and don’t do enough to give broad scaffolding to winners over the long term to ensure success. So the Rise contest helped build an app for applicants and invited participants to share video essays and to participate in online mixers and video lessons as they made their pitches. Some 50,000 people between ages 15 and 17 applied, representing 170 countries.
“A lot of systems privilege science and math geeks and only see that as brilliant,” Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, executive director of Rise, told EdSurge last week. “We’re unpacking the notion of brilliance and finding brilliance that others may not see.”
Last year, in an interview with BBC World News, Wendy Schdmit put it in even starker terms: “If we end up with a room full of math geniuses at the end of doing this, we won’t have succeeded.”
So, who did win the first set of lifetime awards?
Well, some of them sound really skilled at math and science. Adam Dhalla from Canada built an algorithm to help classify the proteins within cells; Aryan Sharma from India has devised an AI-powered diagnostic app to scan X-rays for abnormalities; and Valentina Barrón Garcia from Mexico invented a hydroponic system for growing fruits and vegetables to address food insecurity.
The winners also include plenty of youth focused on the humanities as well. Among those are Lydia Ruth Nottingham from the United Kingdom, who used poetry to convince her school to shift to reusable masks to prevent COVID-19 instead of disposable ones; Irfan Ayub from Afghanistan, who developed a tutoring program in his rural community; and Jennifer Uche from the U.S., who produces a fiction podcast to promote social justice and anti-racism.
The Rise project also worked with smaller nonprofits around the world to identify teens who might not otherwise hear about scholarship opportunities. That led to a winner living in a refugee camp in Kenya, Christian Maboko from Burundi, who has been leading workshops to educate fellow refugees about sexual and reproductive health.
Jennifer Uche, an American winner who runs a podcast, found out she won in a very public way: while being interviewed on Good Morning America.
“I just thought I was there to promote Rise,” said Uche, in an interview with EdSurge. Sitting there during the interview, Uche confesses she was thinking about a test she had coming up at school when suddenly she was told she won.
«If someone hears my fictional story and if a youth is inspired so much that they take action, that means I’m doing my job as a writer,” she said.»
Jennifer Uche, a winner of the Rise talent competition.
Uche said the interview process was “fun” and involved a mix of one-on-one interviews and group interviews where she debated with other finalists.
“They asked us questions about philosophical scenarios, like if you had 100 coins [to give away,] and [a person named] Red is sick and Green is healthy, how many would you give to Red and how many would you give to Green?”
Uche says she is excited by the large amount of financial support the award will bring—as much as $500,000 over her lifetime. (She says she thought there was a typo when she first read about the scholarship and saw how many zeros were in the number.) But she’s also looking forward to taking advantage of the mentorship that Rise is offering, including introductions to famous creators who can help her refine her fiction and podcasting.
Her podcast, which just launched on Halloween, is called EC: Monster Training, which she says is about youth being heroes. It’s part of her larger effort called Project Lux that aims to combine art and advocacy to promote social justice.
“If someone hears my fictional story and if a youth is inspired so much that they take action, that means I’m doing my job as a writer,” she said.
The project is led by Schmidt Futures, a philanthropy founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt who have pledged more than $1B to finding talented young people. (Disclosure: Schmidt Futures has provided support to projects at EdSurge.)
Though the Rise effort touts its brand-new approach, it has partnered with some of the biggest names in student success. It teamed up with Sal Khan’s nonprofit Hello World to build the app, and with the Rhodes Trust, the group behind the Rhodes Scholarship, to administer the prize.
Leaders of Rise say they will now tailor aspects of the program for the 100 winners of the first round. “We’re designing and iterating a custom program just for them, to meet them at their place of need,” said Kamau-Rutenberg. “We’re promising to walk along with them.”
The contest is already accepting applicants for its second round.