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UIC students awarded public service scholarships from Obama Foundation

Haniyyah Thomas and Marnee Ostoa

Two University of Illinois Chicago students have been granted Obama-Chesky Scholarships for Public Service, which are designed for college juniors planning to pursue careers in public service.

The scholarship, also known as the Voyager Scholarship, is in its second year. It is an initiative organized by the Obama Foundation with the assistance of Airbnb’s co-founder and CEO, Brian Chesky.

UIC students Haniyyah Thomas, from the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, and Marnee Ostoa, from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, were two of 100 students chosen from 33 states and territories and 75 colleges and universities nationwide.

Former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama and Chesky recently announced the second cohort. The Obama-Chesky Scholarship for Public Service supports students pursuing careers in public service with an academic scholarship, exposure to travel and connections to a network of leaders.

The scholarship, funded by a $100 million personal contribution from Chesky to the Obama Foundation, is a two-year program beginning students’ junior year and is designed to inspire, empower and connect the next generation of leaders and equip them with the tools and resources they need to launch their careers in public service, according to a news release.

“Michelle and I can’t wait to work with these talented young people over the next few years as they pursue careers in public service,” Obama said. “Their dedication to public service and their determination to solve global challenges inspire hope for a brighter future. We know that this scholarship will not only change their lives, but the world.”

As part of the scholarship, students receive up to $25,000 per year in financial aid for their junior and senior years. In addition, the foundation will provide a $10,000 stipend and free Airbnb housing to pursue work-travel experiences in the summer between their junior and senior years. The Obama Foundation will invite them to a fall summit to help define and inspire their public service goals.

In addition, students will be invited to an ongoing speaker series that will give them access to a network of leaders. After graduation, they will join the Obama Foundation’s global community.

Meet UIC’s Voyager Scholars:

Haniyyah Thomas Heading link

Haniyyah Thomas

Haniyyah Thomas’ dream is to become a principal in a high school where she can design a curriculum and inspire students in a loving way.

“I see children as seeds, and you don’t tell a seed what to be; you just give it what it needs to flourish, and that’s what school programs should be like,” Thomas said. “In some way, shape or form, I want to inspire young people to see their potential.”

As a public policy major at UIC, Thomas focuses on educational policy and hopes to pursue a career in education administration and become a school leader. Her goal is to design a curriculum that creates a classroom culture that allows students to see themselves and where they come from in a way that facilitates love and respect.

Thomas said that being chosen by the Obama Foundation as a Voyager Scholar is confirmation that the future she has dreamed of is attainable.

“It means the visions that I have of what I see for my future and the impact I want to make, I can really get started on it,” Thomas said. “It’s exciting, and it’s going to expose me to a lot of new opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to have otherwise.”

Thomas said she hopes to focus on positively impacting young people who may not have many opportunities. She wants to learn strategies to provide students with hope when they need it.

Thomas said the empathy that her mother, family and strong faith have instilled in her is something that she wants to emulate with young people.

Her love of public service developed at Marist High School, where Thomas mentored younger students. After George Floyd’s death spurred protests across the country, she helped draw up a climate survey that gauged how Black students felt at the school. The survey led to the formation of a Black Student Union and the appointment of a diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Thomas said.

While at UIC, she founded the Black Student Coalition and is part of the Honors College.

For her summer program, Thomas is considering traveling to England or South Africa to study school systems in those countries. She said receiving the award will help her reach her goal of helping young people and their families.

“In some way, shape or form, I just want to inspire young people to see their potential,” Thomas said.

Marnee Ostoa Heading link

Marnee Ostoa

As someone living under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, Marnee Ostoa’s dream is to be in a position as a school leader to help other DACA students succeed.

“My goal and my aspiration is to be a college president,” Ostoa said. “I really hope that I can build a community that really supports each other. I really want to serve as a role model to my family and my community.”

Ostoa, who identifies as nonbinary, said the Voyager Scholarship will help them by paying for their educational costs and establishing a community of like-minded individuals dedicated to public service.

Ostoa said they look forward to developing the leadership skills needed to achieve their dream and hope to meet the Obamas.

“I definitely feel represented by them,” Ostoa said. “And as a person of color, I recognize the hurdles we have all had to overcome to get to their privileged positions. It’s just really an honor.”

Ostoa always loved learning but struggled to find their path in school. Over the years, their family moved to a different neighborhood every year, requiring Ostoa and their siblings to change schools.

Ostoa dropped out of high school on their 18th birthday to help put food on their family’s table by joining their mother as a house cleaner. Eventually, they returned to school and began attending Harold Washington College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago.

At Harold Washington, they began several organizations and community groups focusing on social justice and student issues. Ostoa was elected student government president and was involved in efforts to extend faculty office hours and other initiatives to provide resources for working students.

Ostoa transferred this fall from Harold Washington to UIC, where they are double majoring in sociology and philosophy. Ostoa chose UIC because of its commitment to DACA students and was awarded a national scholarship for DACA, or Dream Act, students. As a DACA student, Ostoa is not eligible for federal financial aid.

“I really learned the power of perseverance and to not give up,” Ostoa said.

Ostoa will stay in the United States for their summer voyage and will focus on issues related to DACA.

“I want other people to know that they are not alone because it’s something that I struggled with, where I felt it was my struggle and no one else would understand me,” Ostoa said. “No matter how many times you keep falling on the floor, as long as you keep getting back up, that’s really all that matters.”