Bronx resident Ashfah Alam went to high school in Manhattan where her classmates had access to a wealth of co-curricular activities that offered opportunities to explore their passions and build self-confidence. Those options, Alam realized, were largely out of reach for low-income communities like her own in the Bronx. So to change that, she co-founded The REACH Project in 2019, offering creative writing workshops for elementary school students that helped middle schoolers find their voices and document their lives, writing about everything from video games to mental health. As a result, she’s now being rewarded for those efforts with a prestigious scholarship.
During the pandemic, Alam and her volunteers provided online writing and STEM workshops and created new curriculum development and marketing teams to build a foundation for the future. The REACH Project received a Community Service Award from the Mujumder Foundation for its contributions to local youth. And her dedication to helping those in her Westchester Square community led Alam to be selected as one of six students from New York City-area schools who received a $10,000 college scholarship as a 2021 Milken Scholars program recipient.
“I was pretty surprised because I didn’t expect to get (the award) at all,” she told the Bronx Times. “I’m surprised at how far I’ve come. I think of myself in the ninth grade and how unconfident I was.”
Beyond the financial aspect of receiving a Milken Scholarship, the recipients receive a lifelong mentor/support system that includes ongoing career-related counseling, assistance in securing internships, opportunities for community service and a fund to assist their pursuit of any post-undergraduate career goals.
Alam, 18, is currently a freshman at Columbia University where she is studying political science and international relations, and plans a career as a human rights lawyer.
However, her path to this prestigious school did not happen overnight.
Since fourth grade, Alam had been going to school in Manhattan where she was surrounded by kids whose privileges and opportunities far exceeded those of kids in the Bronx.
But that did not deter her.
She wrote about social justice for her high school’s student newspaper and served as co-president for Asian Affinity, leading workshops celebrating Asian cultures. She coordinated curriculum development and volunteer training as chief executive of the New York Mock Trial League, which introduced students to the legal field, and spent a summer at the St. Alban’s School of Public Service in Washington, D.C., where she engaged in public policy discourse and congressional debate.
As a classroom aide at Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Service, which serves low-income immigrant families in East Harlem, Alam helped young students with unstable home lives — an experience that cemented her belief in the link between public assistance, community support from local organizations, and successful educational outcomes.
Then after many years of seeing the disparities in her travels from Manhattan to the Bronx, she launched The REACH Project at a learning center in Castle Hill. She advertised it on social media and about 20 middle school kids showed up the first day.
She held a six-week summer program in 2019, and since then it has become quite popular in the Westchester Square, Castle Hill and Parkchester communities.
“When I worked on this and I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was thinking about how I felt when I was younger,” Alam said.
Alam told the Bronx Times that the initial challenges were getting financial support to pay for the website, advertising and persuading parents to let their kids participate. She said many of the students come from immigrant families and often, their parents think school is enough.
Her goal is to continue the program and turn it into a nonprofit.
“I feel like we’ve gotten to a place where we have a great group of volunteers who are very passionate,” she said. “I really just like helping kids to find things their inspired about.”
Reach Jason Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes.