Story at a glance

  • Teenagers face increasingly stiff competition when it comes to college admissions.
  • Many students enter their freshman year with no major to declare.
  • Identifying role models and volunteering may help students stand out from the pack while also allowing them to discover their passion for certain causes.

Let’s admit it: being a teenager is hard. There’s a whole suite of hurdles to jump as we transition from childhood to the world of adulting — which we won’t even attempt to go into here. What we will say is that when it comes to standing out from the pack to gain admission to a college of choice, it’s an increasingly uphill battle for today’s teens. Every year it seems that colleges are admitting their “most competitive class yet” amidst dropping admissions rates. 

A 4.0 GPA will only get them so far, so high school students are having to get creative to think about how they will both find a fulfilling career path and get into a school to pursue said career. One way to do so is through philanthropic efforts, an increasingly popular and exceedingly accessible way to discover what you care about and show it.

One notable young philanthropist who really needs no introduction is the climate activist Greta Thunberg. At only 17-years-old, Thunberg has just been nominated (for the second time) for the Nobel Peace Prize. While she’s now a household name, let’s not forget that she first got her start by writing on a cardboard sign: “Skolstrejk for Klimatet,” or “School Strike for Climate.” The message was a part of her “Fridays for Future” movement, as she encouraged students to skip school and demand action on climate change policies from their governments. 

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Now, we’re not saying you have to be Greta Thunberg in order to figure out your passions, or to get into college for that matter. But it’s all to say that a movement needs momentum. and it all starts out with one small push.

Finding an inspirational voice

Just as young people around the world find inspiration and representation in Thunberg, so did she find herself moved by people her age making a difference. Her tactic of going on strike from school in her “Fridays for Future” movement was inspired by the response to the Parkland shooting in Florida last year, in which high school students became gun safety activists and co-founded the group March for Our Lives.

Another youth leader, Georgetown University sophomore Seth Owen, finds inspiration from reading presidential biographies and watching videos of queer icons such as Ellen Degeneres. Owen even made an appearance on Degeneres’ show last fall, sitting down with the talk show host to talk about his own struggles as a teenager.

“My experience on the show was amazing, and her eyes really are that blue, and she smells amazing,” jokes Owen to Changing America. “I don’t even remember what I talked about, but I do remember that we hugged each other. I know it looked really awkward because I’m so tall, but it was the best hug of my life by someone who I call ‘my mother’ now. She’s incredibly inspiring. For her to take the time out of the show to embrace me in that way was really impactful.”

Owen received national attention after he was forced into conversion therapy and later left his home in Jacksonville, Fla., after coming out as gay to his conservative parents. The then-high school senior was shortly after accepted to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but fell $20,000 short of being able to pay tuition and couldn’t find a bank that would give him a loan. His teachers rallied around him, starting a GoFundMe that ended up raising much more than their target amount. 

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Now a 2020 Youth Ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign, Owen also started a scholarship fund called Unbroken Horizons to help teenagers struggling to find the necessary acceptance and support from their family after coming out. 

Finding your passion

“My parents kicked me out before getting in [to Georgetown], and at that time I was working three jobs,” says Owen. “I didn’t have time for extracurriculars, but I made the time. High school was 7 a.m.-2 p.m., and then I’d stay behind for student clubs, student leadership, I was captain of the swim team. I’d go from one job to the next. It was a horrible schedule, but it provided me an escape from being at home.” 

During his high school years Owen logged more than 360 volunteer hours and says he thinks that was the most important thing he did during that time — something he suggests to any student who is struggling to find inspiration (along with devouring books as if they are dessert). 

“Especially for someone who wants to serve their community or get into government...it’s so important to get out and meet the people who are being disenfranchised: queer people, people of color, people with disabilities. It gave me direction and insight into what I wanted to study and what I wanted to do.”

It was the election of President Donald Trump that inspired Owen to one day jump into politics himself, in order to make a difference and represent positive change. He began shadowing a 

juvenile delinquency judge, which he said was eye-opening. “I’d prioritize volunteering over anything else,” says Owen when asked what his advice might be to high schoolers. 

When asked about how to best reach for these opportunities, he says that there’s nothing bad that can come of just simply showing interest and asking. “It’s scary because as teenagers there’s a lot of pressure to be liked and to not be rejected. It’s so scary to ask, but I love what Brene Brown said about how what makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful. You just have to reach out even when you don’t know what the answer will be,” says Owen, who adds that he’s faced plenty of professional rejection in the past. 

For those who identify as queer, Owen says, “I think that it’s important to prioritize your mental and physical safety, but also to roll your shoulders back and be comfortable with who you are. Know that you are valued and loved and that the future is bright if they’re willing to continue working for it.”

Method: Volunteering in-person

Just as Owen said above, volunteering in person can be a powerful tool, both for the charitable cause you’re devoting your time to and to yourself as well. In fact, studies have shown that giving to others can reduce stress, combat depression, keep you mentally stimulated and provide a sense of purpose.

One way to start is by checking out sites like DoSomething.org, where they have information on how to get involved in a variety of causes — from homelessness to mental health and anti-bullying. 

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For volunteer opportunities, such as picking up trash, you can visit websites for nonprofits such as the Ocean Conservancy and Clean Trails. Animal lovers can volunteer at shelters with the ASPCA.

Method: Volunteering from home

There are only so many hours in the day, and many busy students simply don’t have the daytime hours to devote. Luckily, finding a way to lend a helping hand is only becoming more accessible. At-home volunteering opportunities are also great options for the physically impaired or disabled. 

Become a crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line, an always-free service that allows those struggling with mental health issues and possible thoughts of suicide with a judgement-free counselor. During mandatory training, volunteers learn important de-escalation tactics and signs of calls for help.

A free mobile application called Be My Eyes has also recently gained wide public attention, in which anyone is able to sign up to provide visual assistance to the blind. For multi-linguists there are services such as Translators Without Borders, which depends on volunteers to translate millions of words for a number of international causes. 

Method: Summer programs and gap year

You may have heard of the Peace Corps, which sends people on philanthropic missions around the world, many lasting upwards of two years. While they don’t offer programs for teenagers, a returned Peace Corps volunteer founded Global Leadership Adventures (GLA), which lasts a much shorter span of time of 2–3 weeks. GLA offers volunteer programs in international developing countries during the summer. They have opportunities to volunteer in 20 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe Latin America and the Caribbean.


High school seniors can check out gap year programs like Global Citizen Year, an Oakland, Calif., based nonprofit that brings graduated seniors on school-year long immersions in communities in India, Brazil, Ecuador and Senegal. Fellows work as apprentices supporting efforts in education, health and the environment, as well as receiving leadership training.

Published on Feb 07, 2020