Avighna Suresh has always had access to great education and resources, but when she started high school, she realized that not everyone can say the same. Taking community college classes, as well as volunteering at an after-school program for low-income students, introduced the Hayward, Calif.-resident to the issue of inequitable education. Inspired to help bridge the gap in education access, Avighna founded STEAMPower, a nonprofit that provides free tutoring and educational videos.
Now 17, Avighna serves as the Executive Director of STEAMPower. Since its inception, her nonprofit has provided over 750 hours of tutoring to students ranging from ages eight to 18. The nonprofit took off in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic creating a greater need for remote tutoring. Due to this shift, STEAMPower has been able to recruit both tutors and students from around the world. Almost 50 subjects are offered, including Advanced Placement and honors curriculum.
Describe your volunteer role with STEAMPower.
STEAMPower is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit bridging gaps in equitable education. We provide free tutoring, we make videos on a variety of subjects, and we also have an empowerment series. We also work with local libraries and city councils to try to integrate our services with local offerings to make it more accessible to anyone who needs it. I’m the founder and Executive Director.
What inspired you to start this nonprofit?
Ever since I started high school, I started seeing the pieces of inequitable education throughout many things I did. I’ve always been really privileged and lucky to have access to really great education resources. I’ve been to private schools my whole life and education was never really an issue for me in terms of access. When I first took community college classes, that was the first time I had stepped out of the bubble of educational comfort and I saw people who didn’t have the straight school-to-college-to-workforce path. That was the first time I really encountered my own classmates having a different reality to me, whereas before — especially in elementary, middle, and high school — all my peers were really similar to me and I never really saw anyone having an issue. Everyone had access to tutoring. Then last year, I went to Up on Top which is an after-school program in San Francisco. It’s for low-income students. It goes up to fifth grade. It’s a totally free after-school program where they give them food and homework help and they keep them there until their parents can come pick them up. That was really sort of a turning point for me where I saw it in action and how this effected their everyday lives. These kids were so young and they didn’t really have access to tutoring the way I did, or access to really great teachers who were able to stay after school and help them out with homework, especially since a lot of these children did have issues with learning. That’s when I realized that the resources in many areas are just not enough, [in terms of] resources that are publicly available and free for people to access.
I started off with just providing free tutoring and letting people from high schools like mine volunteer to provide these services for students. I think this is something that a lot of libraries try to do, but I wanted to make it really easy to match students and tutors together and make it a really seamless process. I used social media and the internet and the power of all of that to find a lot of people willing to do these things. It was actually surprisingly easy. I think today we have something around 350 people willing to tutor, and it’s increasing by the day. From there, it went into how do I get these people who are really willing to give their time, and how do I get them in touch with others who need it? It started with a lot of reaching out to people in our local communities, talking to libraries, city councils, emailing principals of many schools in a really big radius from where me and a lot of the other team members lived, and finding a way to get our service out there. Once that happened, it sort of grew upon itself and we were able to help a lot of students. That’s where the tutoring started. As we had a lot more people, a lot of people were willing to create videos and be interviewed, so that’s how we expanded to doing those things.
What are your goals for the future of STEAMPower?
I think the growth I really want to see is not within the organization but with educational equity as a whole. I think the things we’re doing should not just be limited to our own organization. I think a lot of people and a lot of organizations should implement similar things to us within their own organizations, like schools and libraries around the country and around the world. Tutoring can cost up to $60 an hour, and that’s just really inequitable and makes it really difficult for low-income students to be able to get the same educational benefits as students with more money. So collaborating with a lot more schools, and not just having our independent tutoring, but weaving it into the way education is built. It’s a really longterm goal and it’s achieved in many short-term goals, and that comes with talking to more libraries and seeing how they can implement our programs or similar programs within their own institutions and schools, and how teachers can use other students and create systems within their school that students feel comfortable and safe going to, to get these resources for free.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Definitely seeing the impact we could make and how many hours and people we were able to help. Seeing that number constantly go up is really rewarding. Also, interacting with these students. At the very beginning, I was able to interact with a lot of them. Now I’m not really able to do that so much anymore because there’s just so many, but at the beginning, just seeing the way they grew to become really comfortable with the tutors. A lot of the students would start off really shy and afraid to come out and ask questions. Then further through the process, they became really infatuated with learning and really started enjoying and looking forward to that Thursday where they would meet their tutor on Zoom. It was really nice seeing how much more open they became toward learning and education, and seeing that spirit fostered within them from some really supportive tutors. That’s really the most rewarding part.
Change can start at the local level. I’m not some big entrepreneur and I really didn’t have all these resources to create the change I wanted to see, but I was able to mobilize the people around me who had similar concerns for their own communities. The power of vision can really take you far. Seeing a cause within your community and taking it to the next level is not difficult at all. It does take a lot of hard work, but I think that people think they need to have a lot of money or resources. Creating change, especially educational change, [is easy] because a lot of us are already knee deep in the educational system because we go to school and we’re a part of after-school activities. It’s really easy to start a club at your school that provides tutoring in whatever way possible. Give a little bit of time everyday to tutor a kid every week. Change really starts with the individual and I think I really saw that happen with the efforts that me and a lot of my peers were able to create through STEAMPower.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
I think it’s really, really important because it’s not really just something that effects the group of people that you’re trying to impact, but it really changes the way that your community views things. If we were all stagnant to change, we would never see anything progress. Leaving it up to others to change our communities and the way we want to see them changed — if everybody thought that way, we would never make any progress. We take a lot from our communities and I think if we see something we have an issue with, or we see a need that we feel like should be satisfied, we should take that first step in trying to create the change we want to see.
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