The Congressional Award

December 4, 2003

by Howard and Matthew Greene

Students, and their families, seem to be busier than ever, and more concerned that working hard and developing oneself into a balanced, well-rounded, and full person seems not to be very well recognized in our culture or by college admission officers. Students are doing a lot of public and community service these days. They are traveling across the U.S. and internationally. They are playing sports for impossible numbers of hours each week. They are working part- or even full-time to help support themselves and their families, and to save money for college. Some are participating in exciting leadership and development programs, joining new clubs at school, earning an Eagle Scout badge or a martial arts black-belt, or developing their skills in the visual or performing arts. "Isn't there some way to make it clear how much our daughter has been doing?" many parents ask us. "Our son has been involved in so many things. Will that get lost in the college admission process?" wonder others. Beyond college admissions, many parents and their sons and daughters would like some acknowledgement of their development as individuals and their setting and accomplishing personal goals. In our counseling work, we have encountered many international students who have found just such recognition through their participation in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award program in the United Kingdom and many other current or former British Commonwealth countries, such as Hong Kong. The Edinburgh program is often highly publicized abroad, and valued strongly by secondary schools and universities, which are familiar with the difficult conditions students must meet to earn an award. We have seen students from Hong Kong tutor students at impoverished schools in China, and participate in camping expeditions on neighboring islands. Others in the U.K. have volunteered with disabled children, or achieved significant standing in music competence. To our surprise, many families and educators in America do not seem to know about the Congressional Award (www.congressionalaward.org), our own version of the Edinburgh Award, which is affiliated with a large group of National Award Programs, including the Edinburgh. Established in 1979 and awarded non-competitively to youth ages 14 to 23 who meet personal goals in four key areas, the Congressional Award presents an excellent way for parents and children to set goals together, and for young adults to earn recognition for their accomplishments. The four program areas in which participants set their own goals and choose their own activities are: Volunteer Public Service, Personal Development, Physical Fitness, and Expedition/Exploration. According to William Kelley, National Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Congressional Award Foundation, writing in the April, 2003, Bulletin of the National Association for College Admission Counseling: "The Congressional Award is about service, initiative and achievement — some of the factors that admission officers consider ... Participants work entirely at their own pace over an extended period of time so that the value of volunteer service, staying fit, learning new skills, and exploring new places and activities are made part of the young person's lifestyle." How does someone earn the Gold Medal, the highest of the six award levels? By keeping a personal Record Book, in which activities and hours are validated by appropriate individuals, and which is supervised by a chosen advisor. For example, an individual could conduct extensive direct service in the community through the Red Cross, make the Varsity Baseball team and start a new sport like kayaking, learn a new foreign language and get certified as an Emergency Medical Technician, hike a section of the Appalachian Trail, and spend several weeks in the summer working on a Native American reservation. All these kinds of activities count toward the award program. The accumulation of hours will determine what level the recipient can earn over time, with all hours counting toward the Gold Medal, which is presented annually in the Capitol in Washington, DC. Many students are already doing many of the things that are appropriate for the Congressional Award, yet only about 13,000, according to Kelley, are currently working toward the award, compared with some 250,000 in the United Kingdom, with its smaller student population. We could envision families adopting the award program as students enter high school to open up discussions about personal strengths, interests, goals, and individual areas to be developed. Together, they could have fun targeting new activities and experiences that would not only help a young person earn a medal, but would also foster his or her personal growth and sense of achievement.