As an eighth grader, Olivia Foster was looking for a challenge. Then she came across the Congressional Award online—a national program where students can earn medals for completing tasks in areas such as public service, personal development, physical fitness, and exploration—and her path became clear. Now a junior, Ms. Foster will be awarded the highest youth award in the program, the gold medal, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. in June.
Signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 to “recognize initiative, achievement, and service in young people,” the Congressional Medal program is open to American citizens aged 14 to 23 years old. Participants can earn bronze, silver, and gold certificates, or bronze, silver, and gold medals.
In order to qualify for the award, participants must complete a number of hours in four areas: Personal Development, Volunteer Public Service, Physical Fitness, and Expedition/Exploration.
According to the Congressional Award website: “This is not an award for past accomplishments. Instead, you are honored for achieving your own challenging goals.”
After discovering the national competition, Ms. Foster devoted the next four years to the Congressional Award. “I knew that it was going to be a challenge, and it allowed me to push myself to my extreme,” she said.
She chose to donate her time to a wide array of causes. For her personal development hours she worked on TeenJury, a website she and her sister started. She came up with the idea for the website after visiting the Springfield Public Forum, a public interest organization that hosts lectures on a broad array of subjects. Ms. Foster introduced herself to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer after he spoke, and he invited Ms. Foster to Washington, D.C. to view oral arguments at the Supreme Court.
“Being there and watching everything happen really influenced me,” she said. “I wanted to do something with the experience because there are other teenagers that don’t have these opportunities…so I made teenjury.com to share that knowledge and experience with others.”
The site is a team effort by two of the three Foster sisters: Olivia acts as editor and content manager and Abbie ’16 is the site’s designer. Targeted at teenagers interested in careers in law, Ms. Foster said that the website is dedicated to the belief that, while you need to be 18 years old to vote, you do not need to be 18 years old to think. More information can be found about the site online.
Jen Fulcher, the head of the Williston Northampton Middle School and Ms. Foster’s eighth grade civics teacher, was Ms. Foster’s advisor for the past four years. “Whenever I saw her get an opportunity to talk about her website, and all the great things she was doing to understand and connect herself to the workings of the U.S. government, I could always see her passion for the work she was doing,” said Ms. Fulcher.
Ms. Foster worked with the AIDS Foundation of Western Massachusetts, posting current news about HIV/AIDS-related topics to the organization’s social networking platforms to fulfill her volunteer public service requirements.
“Primarily, I tried to connect with other youth who need to be taught about HIV/AIDS and that it is, indeed, preventable,” she said.
The Congressional Award program also requires participants to complete physical fitness hours. Ms. Foster completed more than 200 of them as a member of the varsity girls golf team. As a freshman, Head Coach Ann Pickrell noted, Ms. Foster won the nine-hole division of the Pippy O’Connor Independent School Girls’ Golf Tournament.
A study abroad trip with the People to People Student Ambassador Program rounded out Ms. Foster’s requirements. Travelling through Spain, Italy, and France, Ms. Foster said she had a multitude of new experiences, which included trying escargot.
Almost four years later, Ms. Foster admits completing these requirements was a lot of hard work, but was worth the effort.
“I learned that if I set my heart to something I can achieve it,” she said. “There were bumps in the road and there were plenty of moments when I didn’t think I could achieve the goals I set, but I was able to push through.”
Ms. Foster will travel to Washington to be awarded her gold medal at a ceremony in the Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill on June 19.