Ila Prabhuram

Interview by Meghana Nakkanti

Name: Ila Prabhuram

Age: 15 years old

City you currently reside in: Atlanta, Georgia

Ethnicity: Indian

// Who were your female role models as a young girl?

Well, I’ve always looked up to Oprah after my mom showed me one of her talk show episodes. I thought, “Wow, her story is so amazing. And if she can do it, anyone else can do it too.” Especially when I was younger, I would lose hope really quickly because I always wanted to be the best at everything. So every time I wasn’t the best, I always thought, “I shouldn’t do it.” Women like her inspired me to continue not to lose hope immediately, and not to get knocked down after the first try.

// What kind of situations did you apply this philosophy of persistence?

I’ve applied to a lot of different programs, and I’ve gotten rejected by a lot of them. Now it’s obviously upsetting when you put a lot of effort into things you apply for, and then you get rejected. Then it’s like, “What did I do wrong?” I started to lose hope at first until I realized that everyone was rejected. Rejection is super important in life, and you actually need to start valuing rejection. I apply that philosophy every time I feel like I need extra motivation. First, for example, when I had to register for my nonprofit, it was really hard. I had to overcome a lot of different barriers. It's just really hard, especially if you don't have any experience. Again I was struggling to find hope that I can do this, but then I remember that if Oprah can do it –– I can do it. Also, if it is really something I do care about –– that's when I really apply the philosophy.

// What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?

I guess I would say starting College Pathway because I found out about education inequity in my 8th-grade year when I was around 13. I realized that this was a huge issue that no one was really talking about. Then I thought, “If no one else is going to do something about it, then I should do something about it.” I was really proud of myself actually when I was able to start it and make a big support system because I really never thought I would be able to do that. I just thought that I would post a little fundraiser and donate it to a bigger organization. I didn’t realize that I would actually be able to start my organization. I think that’s probably my biggest accomplishment that I’m most proud of.

// Yes! I have been reading a lot about that, and I think it’s so incredibly impressive, that someone at such a young age was able to do that. Can you tell me more about the inequality that you noticed in education?

Wow, thank you so much! So I used to volunteer at this trailer park in my community as a part of this club at my school for service hours. We used to tutor elementary school students who went to a low-income school. I started talking to one of the mothers who lived there. She told me that her son, who was in elementary school, wasn’t going to attend college. I was confused because I thought, “He’s in elementary school. Why is he not going to attend college?” She said, “Because we can’t afford it. My son won’t get any scholarships because he’s not smart, and scholarships are really competitive. Even need-based scholarships take merit into account.” So I came home that day, and I asked my parents, “Does this happen to other people?” I just thought it was a problem that happened in her family. I didn’t realize that this happened to students all over the nation.

Millions of students can’t go to college because they can’t afford it, hence the name College Pathways. It would help provide some guidance to let students go to college. Then I realized that the root of the problem actually started in elementary school. Students in elementary school started losing the motivation to do better in school because their socioeconomic status affected their motivation. They had a lack of resources compared to students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. And that deals with the issue of education inequity because those students don’t have access to things like a proper curriculum. Title I schools don’t have access to resources that other schools have, so I thought, “What can I do about this?” This is preventing them from having a quality education, which is so important for success.

// Wow, that’s so cool! What does College Pathway focus on now, and what does the organization accomplish?

That’s when I expanded College Pathway to not just focus on giving scholarships because it was a lot of work, and I wasn’t sure how to exactly give the scholarships to low-income students. I decided to focus on giving resources to low-income elementary school students instead –– designing a curriculum and posting FAFSA workshops to high schoolers to navigate through financial aid. A lot of high school students don’t really know how to apply for financial aid, which prevents them from actually getting the aid. From getting curriculum to financial aid help, and even just talking with legislators and congressional officials on how to make education more equitable for students. That’s what College Pathway is focusing on, and hopefully, we can distribute curriculum across the globe!

// I know that you are the founder of Gen Z Writes, could you tell me a bit about the platform and your inspiration behind it?

I founded Gen Z Writes more recently. College Pathway was my passion project for a long time. I’ve always loved writing. It’s a way for me to express myself when I’m going through a lot of stuff. That’s just my way of letting out my thoughts. I had my own personal blog, and I started noticing that I was getting a lot of different hits from people that were adults –– people I didn’t even know. I was like, “Wow, people actually want to hear what I have to say?” I was actually very surprised at that. I thought, “There’s a lot of other kids like me who have amazing things that they want to talk about, but there is not really a platform for them to do so. Then I decided to start this little platform where students and myself included, could talk about anything they wanted to talk about: politics, current events, or even their own change-making journey.

On April 10th, this year, I just started a social media account for Gen Z Writes, and it grew a lot. I wasn't expecting it. We now have 40 plus team members internationally, and we have expanded to over 6 different countries. We have so many requests for people who want to share their work and be featured on our website. It's really amazing to see that so many people want to have a platform to share their voices. There are so many changemakers out there and so many amazing students who have amazing things they need to say, but there are not really many outlets for them to do so. I’m hoping that Gen Z Writes is a place for all of these youth voices to come together and be able to collaborate and connect and share their voice about different things. Hopefully, we’re going to have an art section on our blog, so students can submit art and poetry. It’s just a place where Gen Z from different backgrounds, ethnicities, creed[s], and gender come together and share their voice.

// What does student involvement look like with Gen Z Writes?

[Student involvement is] the part where we feature other changemakers on our platform, which is the featured Gen Z spotlight. We hope to inspire other young people by highlighting these changemakers. We want to show that, “If they are doing that at my age, [then] I can do that too!” That’s why we take different feature nominations and write articles about them and post them on social media. We are able to show students examples of changemakers who chase their dreams and follow their passions. That’s what we are hoping to promote through our platform. That you can do it and have a voice.

// What type of difficulties did you face as a female creating change?

In today’s society, women are especially oppressed because we have to meet a bunch of different standards, from beauty standards to other random standards that society sets for us. A lot of people, including myself, have struggled with things like body positivity. I think that it’s really important, for women especially, to realize that we are strong and not to take no for an answer. If someone tells you that you can’t do something, you shouldn’t listen to them.

// Do you have any advice for young girls who have a lot of potential and ideas but are too scared to put themselves out there?

Well, you can’t take no for an answer no matter what other people say. But I would also say that since I’m more of a list person –– to formulate a plan of exactly how you want to do something. Research is so incredibly important, especially if you are targeting a certain issue or want to address a certain issue. Make a Google Doc and specifically list out ways to combat this issue. Research about how this issue is affecting your area or somewhere else, and make a plan that you can implement in the future. It's really important to go in with a plan –– not just go in without anything to offer. Even if you don't have that much experience, I just think that a plan is really important because as long as you do your research –– you should have a pretty basic understanding of what issue you are trying to combat. Research is really important as well as passion, of course. -GGH

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