A Conversation With...

Sheyla Street

The 2020–21 school year, while difficult, gave students many opportunities to jump in and make a difference. This year’s national NHS Scholarship winner Sheyla Street, a senior at Central High School in Philadelphia, did just that by jumping in with two feet. Her efforts are both plentiful and impressive. Here’s what she had to say about her activities and winning the award.

Advise: How do you feel about being the 2021 NHS Scholarship National Winner?

I feel very proud and excited. This win is not just for me; this is a win for my community, for my school, and my colleagues, and classmates. It’s really just a proud moment also for my parents, too, to just see everything really pay off.

Advise: What service activities did you participate in while in NHS?

In school, I wrote Black Student Demands to address our school’s instances of racism. My group met with administration and talked, but we wanted more than just words; we wanted action. So, we created 10 demands to level out Central’s inequities and foster an affirming culture. I presented our demands, along with steps to accomplish those demands, in front of 150 students, faculty, and administration. As I continued to emphasize our demands through my social media posts, at board meetings, and speeches at protests and on the radio, our demands got thousands of likes on Instagram and a lot of attention from the press. Other schools even reached out to help us implement them.

After the release of our Black Student Demands, I wanted to keep the momentum up, so I organized a schoolwide anti-racism symposium. While our demands were centered around our administration promoting an anti-racist agenda, we wanted to use this symposium to define the roles of students and teachers in creating more fair and equitable conditions for Black students.

I am also the co-founder of The Philly Black Students Alliance (PBSA), which is made up of Black students, teachers, and alumni demanding anti-racist schools and student representation on our school board. The goal of our #StudentVoiceStudentVote campaign is to modify the structure of the Philadelphia school board so the two appointed student representatives are afforded voting rights. After I testified at the school board meeting, reporters quoted my statements on Twitter. Many students reposted our statements in agreement and, shortly after our testimonies, the Urban Education Advocates (UrbEd) group reached out to us. Now we are partnering with the UrbEd group to organize press conferences, meetings with elected officials, and school board testimonies so that we can be more effective in our common goal: to get voting rights for student representatives on the school board.

I also participate in #GetOutTheVote. I register people to vote and then follow through with them to remind them about election day. I tell them where their polling place is, answer their questions, and inform them about free ride services. I have also used all social media platforms to raise awareness about voting, to remind people of deadlines, and to inform them of their rights as voters. In addition to my work in voter registration in my school, I also worked within my community. I hosted 45 voter registration drives at local establishments throughout the summer of 2020. In addition to the managers of the voter drive locations, we also partnered with the Philadelphia city commissioner’s office, local and state officials, the Urban League, and the Black Voters Matter organization. If people were hesitant about registering, we did not pressure them; we listened. After understanding a person’s point of view, we were able to connect voting to issues they cared about.

I was also the co-captain for my track team. As the co-captain, I helped to organize several bake sales during each season to raise funds for our uniforms, track meet fees, and hotel costs. I have also volunteered at the Somerset Academy Early Learning Center to tutor and help young students transition from the summer camp to the after-school care program. In addition, I have volunteered my time with the Blue Cross Broad Street Run and Philadelphia marathon collecting runners’ belongings before the race, watching them during the race, and handing out energy bars after the race.

Additionally, my family hosts an annual turkey drive, in which we give out thousands of turkeys to families in need in our community. Each year, I help to pack the baskets of food to go along with turkeys. I also help to load people’s cars as they come to pick up their turkeys and baskets.

I have also participated at the Telluride Association Sophomore Seminar: Community Unity Music Education Program (CUMEP). As a CUMEP volunteer, I assisted the civic engagement and dance instructors in their efforts to teach second graders. We broke down books such as Bettina Love’s We Want to Do More Than Survive, so that seven-year-olds could understand the significance of civics and apply it to their own lives.

I also volunteer as a poll worker. When I was 10, I started by passing out lunches to the hungry poll workers. Once I went to high school and got involved with my school’s voter registration team, I began to recruit high school poll workers. Throughout summer 2020, while registering people to vote, I also recruited poll workers and sent them to the City Commissioner’s Office. Thus, I built a relationship with all three of our city commissioners. This relationship granted me access to accurate information from the people who conduct Philadelphia elections.

On Sunday mornings I also serve as Junior Trustee Officer. I collect my church’s tithes and offerings, then count and, most importantly, pray over the money that provides not only our church with basic utilities but other families’ homes as well.

Advise: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from participating in NHS?

One of the biggest lessons I learned is that every point counts, and every minute that you spend studying really counts. I didn’t even think I was going to make it into NHS—forget becoming the president of my group and then becoming the 2021 National Winner. At Central, you have to have a 4.0 minimum to qualify. After my sophomore year, my GPA was the minimum 4.0. I wanted to apply, but because other people had higher GPAs, I didn’t know if I would get in. So, I learned to just try. Also, when you’re doing an application process—for college or a scholarship—don’t leave anything out. Many times when I would go through these scholarship and college applications, I would feel like I need to minimize myself, and say like, “Oh, I’ve done way too much. They might not believe me or think I lack focus.” But just be honest in who you are. People will read through what you’re saying and believe you.

Advise: Who were your mentors while you were in school?

Mr. Quinn—he’s the voter registration team school sponsor, and he is the person who encouraged me to continue with student voting registration after my sophomore year. He also encouraged me to speak at a school board meeting. That was my first time speaking at a citywide event. There were people from across the city there. He recorded it and put it on YouTube. I had a great chance to really speak up and see the power of my voice. After I spoke, I then met the superintendent and got involved with the school district. I would also say Ms. Angie. She was the Philadelphia regional organizer for When We All Vote’s program. She was a great mentor during the pandemic to keep me going because even when school was closed, I was still doing a lot. My track coaches are also great mentors, and I have to mention my mom and dad. They were all there telling me to put my best foot forward.

Advise: What are your plans for the future?

I definitely know that I’m going to college. I want to major in computer science or information science, data science. I’m interested in the intersection of law and technology. There are a lot of devices that use facial recognition, microchips, even fingerprints, and the way data is collected by these devices and then used is outpacing our laws. I am interested in regulating that in order to protect consumers and make laws that protect us instead of getting more and more data, but I need to understand how these devices function.

Advise: How has winning this scholarship helped you?

It has definitely given me more confidence. In the spring, I applied for many scholarships that I didn’t get. But I was motivated. My school surprised me with it. There was an announcement, and I didn’t expect it. So, that was great, and that made me really happy. My principal was super proud, and the superintendent sent me a letter. Like I said before, this scholarship is not just for me. It’s for the people who’ve supported me and have helped me achieve everything that I’ve achieved. It’s for them to see that all of our work has really paid off, and people who’ve poured their time and lives into me—it’s really made them proud.

Advise: What was your motivation for getting involved with so many activities?

It was the environment, honestly. I transferred to Central after my freshman year. At my previous school, I was involved in the diversity committee and the African American Culture Club, but the students there were not willing to change. So, I had to leave, but I felt like I was abandoning the Black students there. When I went to Central, I realized I could continue my work there, and not only could I continue the work, but I could also connect with the students at my old high school. I could see the work needed to be done and thought I could make a difference for those in the grades under me. Each activity I did added to the next. There was a natural progression, and I wanted to make a difference.

Advise: What advice would you give to current seniors?

Keep applying and have faith. This is what has worked for me. I say yes to everything, and then, if it doesn’t work out, then I say no afterwards. I think you should say “why not?” versus “why should I?” You shouldn’t have to have a reason to do things; you should just be doing them. Take every opportunity you get because you don’t know what it’s going to lead to, and you don’t know who you are going to meet. Have faith, too, when you are doing these things.

My last piece of advice is to be willing to do things for free. Don’t just hop into things for money. I believe in paid internships, but not getting paid shouldn’t be a reason to not do something. Everyone should have that experience volunteering for something, and not expecting anything back, but just doing it because you believe in it. Find at least one thing that you are willing and excited about volunteering to do, and that will really ground you in whatever else you do, too. —