When Balkarn Singh Shahi looks back on his high school experience, one activity stands out – the University of Colorado Boulder’s Public Achievement program. As a student at Centaurus High School participating in the program, Shahi and peers responded to national public shootings by spearheading a public campaign to prevent gun violence with support from the faith-based community, the City of Lafayette, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, and other influential organizations.
“Looking back, what shocked me was we approached high-power local institutions and they took us seriously,” Shahi said. “We found out that we could actually make a difference and create change even as high school students.”
Now a sophomore at CU-Boulder, Shahi could not resist the opportunity to give back to the Public Achievement program, which pairs CU-Boulder students as coaches with groups of underrepresented K-12 students seeking solutions to their identified salient social issues. Shahi has been a Public Achievement coach, and this year he served as a teaching assistant for the corresponding civic engagement course and new class of coaches.
“This program tells you ‘yes, you can make change,’ and I wanted to ensure other students had a similar experience,” he said.
Housed in CU Engage, CU-Boulder’s center for community-based learning and research, the Public Achievement program seeks to promote K-12 student retention, academic excellence, and access to post-secondary education through year-long, social action projects. Part of an international initiative, the program at CU-Boulder was established in 2007 by instructor Elaina Verveer, and it receives support from a CU-Boulder Outreach Award.
This academic year, Public Achievement involved 70 CU-Boulder undergraduates and nearly 250 K-12 students from Angevine Middle School, Casey Middle School, Centaurus High School, Creekside Elementary School, and the “I Have a Dream” Foundation of Boulder County. Together the students took action on the social issues that matter to them.
The current projects were showcased at the recent project unveiling on the CU-Boulder campus, where students proudly showcased their projects addressing animal abuse, bullying, food waste, domestic violence, gender inequalities, global education, public art, teen depression and suicide, teen substance abuse, and video game violence. They also talked about the impact of the program and projects have had on them. A theme surfaced — the youth involved are not ‘emerging’ leaders, but current agents for change in their communities.
Shahi knows the feeling and has experienced it at all levels as a Public Achievement student, coach, and teaching assistant, and he is grateful for the opportunity to be working with new groups of students at Centaurus High School.
“I don’t see Public Achievement as class anymore,” Shahi said. “I see it as something to do and a way to give back. It fits with my long-term goals. After college, I want to continue to give back to my community.”