This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Amy Chen, a senior at Science Leadership Academy, took a deep breath when her principal, Chris Lehmann, started talking.
She laughed when he mentioned the concussion she suffered last year. She smiled as he told her to take pride in her many accomplishments. She listened when he explained the qualities that made her the best candidate for the scholarship that she was being awarded.
Chen was selected as the first recipient of the Jill Melmed-Buzzeo "Girls with Grit" Award, which recognizes students for overcoming odds and making a difference. Chen was nominated by her principal, and after an application process and interview, she received the $2,000 scholarship and a mentor to support her in college.
She beamed as she was presented her scholarship and mentor partner.
Fran Melmed, founder and president of the Jill Melmed-Buzzeo Award, said that organizers were looking for preparation, persistence, resilience and grit as they evaluated the candidates.
“We also wanted someone who gave back to the world that they were in,” she said.
The fund was created in March, shortly after Jill Melmed-Buzzeo passed away. Her daughter, Fran Melmed, was inspired by the lessons that her mother had instilled in the family and she wanted to pass those lessons on to young women. Melmed contacted colleagues, who would become the board of directors, with the idea for the scholarship and began planning the process. They decided on the necessary personality traits, many of which Melmed admired in her mother, and started contacting schools for nominations.
“I thought it would be a marvelous way to remember her, to share her life lessons, to give back – which was important – and to find a much more positive way to deal with this loss,” Melmed said.
Chen’s work within and outside of her high school, advocating for better public education and gun violence prevention, gained the attention of Philadelphia Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco, who appointed her to the Philadelphia Youth Commission. There, she works closely with the executive board, the education committee, and the public safety committee to make positive changes in her community.
She also holds a seat on the student advisory council created by Superintendent William Hite. On the council, Chen weighs in on budget and strategic planning decisions with other students. She and four other students became the first members of the council in 2012, when they helped to organize school walk-outs.
To complete her senior capstone project at SLA, she partnered with Philadelphia Cease Fire to arrange a youth summit on gun violence prevention, which was held last month. Six mayoral candidates and more than 200 students, most of whom were students of color, attended the summit, which consisted of discussions and activities.
“That was really powerful, because you don’t see students of color coming to these events to talk about this issue.” Chen said. “Sometimes they feel like they don’t matter, like because they are Black, no one cares about [them], so there is no point of wasting [their] opinion.”
Jill Melmed-Buzzeo Award board member Abigail Kopf applauded Chen’s work.
“The things that she has done are completely incredible,” Kopf said. “It just made sense for her to get the award. She had all the characteristics we were looking for and then some.”
The board said that it hopes to expand the program, offering the scholarship to more girls in the future.
A first-generation college student, Chen will attend Juniata College in the fall to study biology and political science, with the hopes of running for political office after college.
“I have actually been to the White House a few times and I always think, ‘Wow, this is so amazing,’” Chen said. “I feel so powerful, like I could actually change something.”
Melmed said that she was most impressed by Chen’s ability to understand herself, her environment, goals, and ambitions, and to use that knowledge to overcome the obstacles she faced to achieve her major life goal: to bring about large-scale change in the world.
“When people say you can’t do something, prove them wrong and do it, because that’s what I do and it has gotten me pretty far,” Chen said.
For information about the winter 2015-16 application cycle, visit jmbaward.com.
Samantha Weiss is a summer intern at the Notebook.