When she was in elementary school, Siya S. ’26 says she often felt a sense of cultural dysphoria that was centered around her being the only student of color in her class. “I remember vividly how embarrassed I used to be when opening my lunchbox with Indian food,” she says. “However, the simple mention of India had me shuffling in my seat with excitement. It wasn’t until I became involved with a local Indian organization that my mom was part of that I found a community I didn’t know I was looking for.”
This experience inspired Siya’s recent proposal for the 2023 Transform Rhode Island Scholarship (TRIS) program. Through the program, which is now in its second year, the Papitto Opportunity Connection (POC) invites young people of color to submit big ideas that will help improve the lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities in Rhode Island. Siya submitted an idea called “Crossing Borders, Creating Bridges” that she began developing last year, as an 8th-grader. She wants to connect elementary schools across the state to non-profit cultural organizations through interactive seminars. “These seminars will tell the story of each organization’s culture and traditions and allow students of color (SOC) to reflect on their own identities,” Siya explains. “Through these seminars, I hope to build cultural confidence in students of color and make all students more culturally aware. Ultimately, I hope that by working at the grassroot level, students of color will feel more connected with their cultures and go on to become the new leaders of their BIPOC communities.”
Out of more than 200 submissions, Siya’s proposal was selected as one of ten finalists in the TRIS Program, and in a special event last month, she learned that her big idea was the big winner. In selecting her proposal, the POC will now invest an incredible $1 million to help make Siya’s idea come to life, and she will receive a $25,000 scholarship from the foundation.
“The finalists all had amazing ideas on how they would transform their communities and selecting the overall winner was very difficult,” said John Tarantino, managing trustee of the Papitto Opportunity Connection. “We are proud of all the students and their creativity, but Siya was able to rise above the competition with her idea that closely aligns with POC’s mission of making connections that create real change. We are so excited about her inspirational idea and can’t wait to help her make it become a reality.”
Siya says she was shocked when her proposal was announced as the winning idea. “Watching my submission video play on the screens and hearing my voice echo through the room, I was trying to internalize that an idea that had been in my head would come to fruition and enact real change in student’s lives,” she says. “I remember talking to various people afterwards and hearing about the impact my video had on them. I was amazed to hear about the familiarity they felt with my words and how strongly they had connected to my idea. It was after meeting the community at the Papitto Opportunity Connection’s event that I saw for the first time the power of the community I am aiming to create with my idea, and I couldn’t be more grateful to POC for giving young voices like myself the platform to use our voices and experiences.”
With the support of the Papitto Opportunity Connection behind her, Siya is ready to get to work, starting with the development of those interactive seminars. “I know when most people think of a seminar they envision a slide presentation and long lectures. However, I envision a seminar that incorporates reflection, discussion, and hands-on activities that really engage students and create positive associations with their cultural identities,” she says. “I am really grateful to be able to provide non-profit organizations the support they need to be able to give these seminars using the funding for the project, and I plan to work individually with each organization to help design the seminar to make it as effective as possible and be able to bring it to as many platforms as possible. I really hope that this project can help to transform school communities for SOC and that a decade from now, students will have different experiences in the place where they spend most of their childhoods.”
As she thinks back to her own time in the elementary school cafeteria, when she was embarrassed to open her lunchbox, Siya says it’s wonderful to see how significantly diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts at schools have grown since then. “Organizations like the Papitto Opportunity Connection are truly a part of that change, recognizing the need to provide a platform for SOC to share their voices and passion for giving back to the community. I am equally thankful to Wheeler for offering such a wonderful opportunity to its students and for having such passionate DEI efforts as well. It is through these efforts that we have gotten to where we are today and how we will get to be even better tomorrow.”