A Conversation With Gavin Arneson

A formerly homeless graduate of Clear Creek High School in Evergreen, CO; founder of the first Colorado high school chapter of She’s the First—a nonprofit that provides scholarships to girls in low-income countries; recipient of a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to study nursing and global public health at New York University; and national winner of the National Honor Society scholarship. 

Advise: You’ve faced many trials and tribulations throughout your young life, from your father’s passing to your brushes with homelessness, yet you’ve managed to overcome them to pursue your own goals. What advice can you give to other students facing similar adversities?

Arneson: Always understand that when you are going through something, it is called going through it. You will always come out the other side of whatever it is you are going through, and you will be able to look back at your trials and tribulations and understand what you gained from it! Pain in life is actually just a lesson. Regardless of what I have faced, I can now look back and understand the purpose of that experience—I can connect the dots that have led me here. When I was living in a homeless shelter, I had no idea that in seven years, I would be about to embark to a top-tier university to receive a world-class education. Looking at it now, though, I am able to understand how being homeless contributed to the educational pursuits that have led me to this very moment.

Advise: In addition to working two jobs and attending school full time, you were valedictorian of your class and president of both student council and your National Honor Society chapter. How did you manage to juggle everything? 

Arneson: I thrive on fullness. I am most productive when I have a day that is full from sunrise to sunset—it is kind of a weird energy I have when there are things on my to-do list-that propels me to get those things done. It is truly about time management, prioritization, and utilizing every second you have. Instead of spending downtime on Twitter or Facebook, it is essential to open up that laptop and get some work done! Or, while your peers close their book for the last five minutes of class, use that time to finish up the homework assignment you are working on so you won’t have any to take home. When you have an hour between dinner and rehearsal, don’t waste it—check something off your list of things to do! Minutes add up—increase your productivity by the minute. Additionally, start building a daily schedule. Itemize the things you need to get done tomorrow and figure out exactly when you’ll have time to do it. If you have an agenda set before you wake up in the morning and you have, let’s say, six tasks to get done, and you know when you have the time set aside to get those done, you will begin your day with a purpose. You will have that list of things in the back of your mind and it will pay off as you traverse your day with a sense of urgency, rather than a sense of aimlessness. Those wasted minutes will turn into productivity in no time! Plus, invest in a Starbucks account—you will need it.

Advise: Was there a specific turning point in your life that set you on your path to success? 

Arneson: I think it happened by accident. When my mother, brothers, and I moved into a homeless shelter in Nebraska, I think I struggled with my reality. I was incredibly unhappy, and I chose to focus on anything I could to avoid the truth of what was really in front of me. Somehow, my anxiety was manifested into a dedication to my education. Of course, as a fifth-grade kid, I was oblivious to the true power of an education, but I grew up feeling like I had a point to prove. I had a lot of people to prove wrong. I was poised to fail, so I was determined to succeed. I think the undertones in my life that suggested I would grow up to become a failure propelled me to focus on becoming anything but. I eventually realized the magnitude of the cause I was undertaking, and I chose not to back down from it; rather, I chose to confront it, and follow through—despite the hiccups that would ensue for the next four years.

Advise: When did you first know you wanted to become a member of the National Honor Society and student council? What did you hope to gain from the experience?

Arneson: If I am being honest, it was probably because my friends joined and probably because I thought it would look good on a college application. That being said, I don’t believe that NHS and student council were the perfect organizations for me from the get go. I think that, rather, they had a hand in ultimately shaping who I would become. I don’t believe I was born with a tremendous calling to service or giving back. Eventually, however, I was exposed to all of the effects that those organizations had the potential to create, and I was forever changed! Especially considering my background, I gravitated to the concept of giving back and reinvesting in the people who had given so much to invest in me through my entire life.

Advise: What do you believe is the best way to encourage today’s students? 

Arneson: Amidst the monotony of everyday life at school, it is so difficult to believe that there are rewards that come from education. Every assignment, quiz, test, etc., is—to a student—a hurdle to jump over, and not an opportunity to grow and learn. If we can provide a measurable tool to demonstrate how exactly school and the skills students learn in school—time management, thinking critically, analyzing texts, relating texts, statistical analysis, language development, etc.—are important and imperative to becoming a better person or a highly functioning member of society and not simply receiving a grade, then we can encourage our students to continue to explore, to make mistakes, to try new things, to put their best foot forward—not only in the classroom, but out of it as well.

Advise: Did your service work with either student council or NHS ignite a love of helping others? Did it have any bearing on your choice to go into nursing and global public health?

Arneson: Absolutely. As I mentioned, NHS and student council changed me for the better. Community service, once you leave high school, does not have the same connotation. It doesn’t mean picking up trash and having your adviser sign off on your time so you can get the credit to graduate. Rather, service becomes the imperative tool to make the world a better place. It makes the leap from practice into the championship game. It is about making the world a better place—it is lobbying for a new law; it is sponsoring an education; it is working with underprivileged youth; it is writing to inspire others. Its impact is magnified and extended. These organizations certainly prepared me to begin a life of service. I think my underlying desire to help people was certainly a motivating factor to go into nursing, and that was definitely cultivated by my tenure with both NHS and student council.

Advise: What did receiving the National Honor Society Scholarship mean to you? 

Arneson: It was a validation of the work I had been doing for the last several years. It was difficult, at times, to remember that we weren’t just earning community service hours so that we could graduate. By the second semester of my senior year, I was very nearly burnt out. I had put my heart and soul into so many different projects for four years, and it was coming to an end within the year. I didn’t really feel like I had had an impact. Receiving the NHS Scholarship was a profound reminder of the importance of the work we had done—this wasn’t a game. This wasn’t a “school project.” This was an opportunity to take ownership of our ability to make the world a truly better place. The scholarship was a motivator to look toward the future with a renewed sense of determination for the work that is still ahead.

Advise: Please share your fondest memories from your time in NHS and student council. 

Arneson: A large focus of mine during my tenure as president was to help our members understand the true importance of service, including the service we were doing personally. I would often show videos that elicited an emotional response that related to the work we were doing, or I would have a speaker come in and talk with our chapter about a current project. Having people show up, showing the power of our work, and convincing our membership of that was deeply important to the success of the work we did. I was focused on cultivating 30 compassionate and passionate leaders. With 30 service-minded individuals taking over our chapter after our seniors left and then, a year later, entering the real world, the potential for our global impact was magnified by 30. The people whose lives they would eventually touch would then contribute to the global community, eventually creating a chain reaction—or, at least, that was the idea. My greatest memory was leaving and feeling as though I had made a difference. When people said they wanted to be the next president because they had great ideas about the future of the chapter, about how inspired they were to continue to make a difference, that they had learned so much and wanted to participate further in some of our recent projects, etc., that was the validation of the power of the team we had cultivated.