Irvine students win Congress’ top youth honor

by TOM BERG

Irvine students led the nation in earning the 2021 Congressional Award gold medal, the highest honor that Congress bestows upon civilian youth.

In all, 43 Irvine students earned the award, which recognizes exceptional levels of “initiative, service, and achievement” in young Americans.

To earn a gold medal, students must devote over 400 hours of public service, 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness and undertake a five-day expedition or exploration by age 24.

Here are three Irvine medalists.


‘I founded a nonprofit to teach basic life skills’

Eunice Lee

The journey to finish this program was more important and fulfilling than receiving the award.

As part of the process, I founded the nonprofit organization Heads Up Buttercup and dedicated over 400 hours tutoring and mentoring students in basic life skills that schools do not teach, such as financial responsibility, how to buy and lease a car, what you need to find a place to live, and much more.

I also developed and improved various life skills through my involvement with Girl Scouts and shared my knowledge with other troop members. I learned a variety of skills, such as leadership, camping, vehicle maintenance and money management.

I would tell younger students that this program forces you to not only learn more about your community and its needs but also to learn more about yourself. I feel a great sense of accomplishment.

– Eunice Lee, 17, Northwood High senior


‘I feel proud of the number of lives I touched’

Akshat Sharma

Looking back through my journey, I feel proud of the number of lives I touched, the people I helped, and how much I improved my own habits.

For public service, I volunteered at the local senior center and tutored math to third through fifth graders who needed help. My most memorable achievement was when a fourth grade student told me how he got a good grade on his math test. I remembered his happiness for days and could tell he was grateful for my help. I felt accomplished knowing that my help could bring such happiness to others.

For physical fitness, I worked toward my second-degree black belt in taekwondo. And for personal development, I practiced playing the flute every day to sharpen my musical skills for our youth orchestra.

Working on the Congressional Award and setting personal goals taught me independence, the importance of organization, and how to live a balanced life.

– Akshat Sharma, Woodbridge High senior


‘I preserved native plants on The Irvine Ranch’

Neel Takale

Earning the Congressional Gold Medal taught me many things, like how to adapt, draw up formal plans and revisions, how to make and maintain professional relationships and more.

For public service, I volunteered at a local library, the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. For my expedition, I planned a trip to Tamil Nadu, India, and visited without my parents. I learned how to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and how to manage myself without any assistance.

For personal development, I achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. For my project, I was able to provide the Irvine Ranch Conservancy with planters for baby native plants.

– Neel Takale, Woodbridge High graduate