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Student Wins $5K Scholarship in D.C.-Area Writing Challenge

A Rockville, Maryland, student has won a $5,000 college scholarship in the “Diverse Minds Writing Challenge” for her creative and insightful book that advocates tolerance and diversity.

Ariya Fang, a junior at Thomas Sprigg Wootton High School who wrote the book “What Makes Me Beautiful,” was announced the winner at a June 7 award ceremony at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery in northwest D.C.

“I want to promote tolerance [and] diversity to influence the younger generations, especially because they are going to be our future,” Ariya said. “I just really hope that my book shows that race, religion [and] sex shouldn’t be an issue, and everyone should be treated the same. I hope that when people read this they feel like they belong wherever they are.”

Diverse Minds is a contest where high school students write and illustrate children’s books to help elementary school children celebrate and appreciate tolerance and diversity.

Ariya said the inspiration behind “What Makes Me Beautiful” stemmed from her recognition that people often feel the need to compare themselves to others—and have a difficult time embracing who they are and what they have. She said it was crucial for her to create characters young students could relate to as a reminder that no matter how big the world seems, they are not alone.

The finalists and winners were congratulated by Daniel Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International; Donna Cooper; region president of Pepco; Debbi Jarvis, vice president of corporate relations of Pepco Holdings; Dave Velazquez, president and CEO of Pepco Holdings, and award-winning illustrator Shadra Strickland.

“For the last 26 years, I have traveled the world on behalf B’nai B’rith, and I have met with world leaders, peoples of all cultures, backgrounds and beliefs, and the worst of what I have seen always stems from a foundation of intolerance, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” Mariaschin said. “So, it is always heartening for me to see the idealism, hope and conviction of this next generation and the young people who participate in the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge. It is needed now more than ever, and it is why we at B’nai B’rith are so committed to this program and the substance that it conveys.”

Pepco leaders also chimed in with Cooper expressing gratitude to B’nai B’rith International for its commitment to diversity.

“Since its inception, the Diverse Minds Writing Challenge has given talented students a unique opportunity to spread the message of diversity and inclusion through their own personal lenses and has allowed them to capture the subject in a way that can inspire the younger generations that follow,” Cooper said. “The masterful pieces of art and prose in these books help to educate students by sharing elements of diversity and inclusion in personalized, thoughtful and creative ways collaboratively. We are inspired by their ingenuity and compassion in wanting to give back to others through their work in this competition.”

During the award ceremony, Strickland addressed the finalists and gave an inspiring speech on her journey to becoming a published illustrator and the importance of perseverance and not giving up on dreams.

“The dream doesn’t always look the way it does in your head, but trust your gut, believe in yourselves and keep living the dream,” Strickland told the students. “Live the most inclusive life that you can. As hard and painful as it is to create, it is also one of the greatest and rarest joys that most people never experience.”

Fang’s book will be distributed to local schools, libraries and community organizations, as well as to the annual TODAY Show Holiday Toy and Gift Drive. Her book will also be accessible in an e-book format and will be available on iTunes and Amazon as a free download.

Second-place winners Janet Baindu Lagah-Bona and Río Castañeda-Guthreau from Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C., who wrote and illustrated “Apples & Oranges,” will share a $2,000 scholarship.

Third-place winners Lauren Zhou and Michelle Li of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville wrote and illustrated “The Star of the Show” and will share a $1,000 scholarship.
In addition, the teacher who advised Fang, Sarah Debnam, received a $1,000 grant to use for classroom or organizational materials. Thomas Sprigg Wootton High School received a $500 grant.

A diverse panel of judges from the education, arts, business and government arenas, along with B’nai B’rith International leaders, reviewed the submissions and selected the winners.

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