A Concord teen who, for the past two years, has dedicated all her spare time to tutoring refugee students has won a national award for the work she does with her nonprofit organization.
Riyah Patel, 17, was named New Hampshire’s 2023 Prudential Emerging Visionary by Prudential Financial and Ashoka, a social impact organization. Patel is one of 25 young leaders from around the country who were selected. She will receive a $5,000 award to help her organization, and will also be attending a three-day summit in New Jersey in April where she and the other award-winners will receive coaching, skills development and networking opportunities. She will also present information about her project for the chance to win an additional $10,000 in funding.
“I’m very honored,” Patel said. “I am really looking forward to meeting all of the other young changemakers at the summit in April. I can’t wait to see everyone’s projects and witness the incredible work that other young people are doing across the country.”
Patel, an eleventh-grader and boarding student at Phillips Exeter Academy, first began tutoring New American students while living at home during the summer of 2021, after a year spent remote learning. Starting high school during the pandemic had made it difficult for her to connect with peers, and Patel felt the isolation keenly. When she discussed it with her mother, Manisha Patel, she found it was similar to the way her mother had felt as a child when she first came to the United States with her parents from India.
“I guess that a light bulb sort of went off,” Patel said. “I started wondering how refugee children were dealing with the aftermath of COVID and online learning, if they were already struggling before.”
What started with Patel tutoring two kids a week in the study room at Concord Public Library has expanded into a nonprofit organization called New American Scholars, which has 26 tutors and has served over 100 refugee students in towns around the state. Some of the tutors are other high school students, like Patel, while others are adult volunteers. They connect with students of all ages who need tutoring with the help of partner organizations, or through word-of-mouth.
She’s noticed that many New Hampshire refugee students don’t have the schooling experience that aligns with their age, and the grade in which they are placed. Refugee students, being displaced from their home countries, may lose a year or more of schooling when traveling to the U.S., and the pandemic was an added setback that impacted nearly every student.
“What I have been finding is that these setbacks will have powerful consequences for refugee students,” Patel said.
Running a nonprofit while attending high school keeps Patel busy. A typical day for her involves attending classes in the morning and afternoon, and then spending her after-school time doing behind-the-scenes work for the organization remotely, and connecting with her tutors via Zoom. Every school break week is filled with meetings, tutor interviews and tutoring sessions.
Patel has been honored as a “trailblazer” at the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, which also awarded New American Scholars with the first Women and Girls of Color Fund in 2022. In 2023 she was named one of WZID’s “20 Outstanding Women” and NH Business Review’s “Outstanding Women in Business — NextGen.”
While Patel is still a year away from finalizing her plans for after high school, she knows she wants to continue running New American Scholars, and wants to expand the organization beyond New Hampshire.
“I used to think that this work was important when I started, and now I know that it’s essential,” Patel said. “I’ll be continuing New American Scholars for the foreseeable future.”