Service before self. Character building. Goal setting. That is the foundation of the Congressional Award gold medal, Congress’ highest award for young Americans.
And this year, no other city in the nation has more Congressional Award gold medalists than Irvine. A whopping 39 Irvine students are being honored.
One of them is a junior at Woodbridge High named Anusha Ghildyal. She has done more to lift up others in her 17 years than many do in a lifetime.
Ghildyal registered for the Congressional Award when she turned 13 1/2, the earliest youths are eligible.
There are no prerequisites, by the way. No academic excellence or athletic prowess is necessary. The program asks only that teens set goals for themselves in four categories: public service, personal development, physical fitness and expedition/exploration. “It’s a personal challenge,” says Derek Doyle, communications director for the Congressional Award, which Congress established in 1979. “It gets young people to think of others in their decision-making.”
Youths move at their own pace to meet their goals and have until their 24th birthday to finish up. Ghildyal pulled it off in 3 1/2 years.
For her public service goal, she visited an orphanage in a region of India where her mother was born, bringing lunches to the children; she read books to children at the OC Rescue Mission; she led summer camps for children in Irvine; and she served as a Hoag Hospital greeter, guiding visitors to patients’ rooms.
For her expedition goal, Ghildyal organized a trip for herself and 10 family members to make a five-day pilgrimage on foot to the famous hilltop Hindu shrine Vaishno Devi in India.
For her physical fitness goal, Ghildyal got a second-degree black belt in taekwondo. For her personal development goal, she spent 200 hours learning classical Indian dance, performing recitals at community events to share her heritage with others.
“It teaches you a lot about yourself,” Ghildyal says of the program. “And it’s been a huge confidence boost for me. I think it makes you a better person.”
Now Ghildyal is starting her own nonprofit, The Opal Star Foundation, collecting donations to create care packages for children in hospitals. She hopes to be a doctor someday.
“One of my main objectives in life is to help others and just keep giving,” she says. “All the privileges I have I want to share.”
Irvine is consistently one of the top Congressional Award-getters in the nation, according to Doyle.
“They’re definitely a perennial hotbed of activity for us,” he says. The award does not come with a cash prize, but recipients are treated to a multiday event in the nation’s capital.
About the Award
Congress established the Congressional Award program in 1979 to recognize exceptional levels of initiative, service and achievement in young Americans. The award is the highest honor Congress can bestow upon a civilian youth. Since its establishment, participants have contributed more than 8.4 million hours of public service to their communities.
Participants earn bronze, silver and gold medals by setting personally challenging goals and dedicating hundreds of hours in four key areas.