‘Stick to issues you’re passionate about’: Four Pitt students win Obama-Chesky scholarship


Images via Pittwire

From top left, Pitt’s 2022 Obama Foundation Voyager scholars Yali Beit-Arie, Sydney Wilhelmy, Kiera Lederman and Braydan Issermoyer.

By Khushi Rai, Staff Writer

Kiera Ledermann, a junior economics major, is one of four Pitt students offered the Obama-Chesky scholarship, paying for her to travel abroad for the next 10 years. For Ledermann, the acceptance came as an incredible shock since she applied to the program without any expectations. 

“When I got the email that told me I had received the scholarship, I literally started screaming,” Ledermann said. “If I told 8-year-old me that Barack Obama would think I’m worthy of receiving this award, I don’t think she’d believe it. I still can’t believe it. I just feel so incredibly lucky.”

Former President Obama and Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, started a new scholarship for college students that aims to bolster public service. Four students received the scholarship, and Pitt is the university with the fourth most recipients in the nation, tied with Howard University. 

For the 2022-23 academic year, the scholarship allowed sophomores to apply across the United States. The scholarship aims to provide students with exposure to new places to increase understanding and awareness of public service. According to the scholarship website, students receive financial aid to increase the affordability of pursuing a career in public service.

Ledermann said she plans on traveling to “sustainable” cities in the U.S. — possibly San Francisco or New York. She said by studying the government operations with regard to the way it most efficiently and equitably reduces greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, she hopes to find strategies that other cities can utilize. 

Braydon Issermoyer, a junior political science and psychology major, said he applied because he wanted to dedicate his life to public service. He said the scholarship had a very broad definition of public service, which allowed students with various interests to apply.  

“It was very different from other scholarships I had applied for,” Issermoyer said. “The application consisted of a few essays and a video submission. No interviews or letters of recommendation were required. That being said, it was pretty simple. When I applied, I did not think anything would come of it, and I simply sent and forgot.” 

According to their website, students accepted into the program receive many financial benefits to aid their pursuit of public service. Students receive up to $50,000 in financial aid for their junior and senior years, a $10,000 stipend and free Airbnb housing during their summer work travel between their junior and senior years, and a 10-year travel stipend of $2,000 each year. 

Issermoyer said the financial assistance from the scholarship will alleviate part of his student debt, allowing him to focus more on his public service endeavors. 

“Before receiving the scholarship, the weight of debt had been crushing,” Issermoyer said. “I was concerned I would be limited in my life opportunities, simply to pay off my loans. But now, much of this debt has been lifted off my shoulders which I feel will allow me to pursue a far more fulfilling path of public service.”

In addition to receiving financial assistance, students are invited to an annual fall summit to meet with Obama and Chesky to discuss leadership and public service. The program ensures that students will receive opportunities to network with leaders of different fields to learn about innovations currently occurring.

Issermoyer said he plans on traveling abroad to examine democracies at various stages, from backsliding to thriving, to understand how individual actors fit in. He said he hopes to apply what he learns to our own domestic situation to work and ensure continued democratic success in the U.S.

Pitt also offers students guidance when applying for scholarships through the National Scholarships Advising Center. Lesha Greene, director of national scholarships for the David C. Frederick Honors College, said the center recruits and promotes a number of nationally and internationally competitive awards and helps students through the application process. 

“We do a lot of work on the essays,” Greene said. “For this specific application, there was also a video component, so we would just brainstorm with them about how they wanted to approach that and discuss things they may want to include or highlight in the video. We were quite happy and pleased with the success and I think it’s just a testament to the work that Pitt students are doing.”

Sydney Wilhelmy, a junior political science major, also received the scholarship. He said students from all disciplines and majors should consider applying because the goal of the scholarship is to broaden the scope of public service.

“I think almost a third of the winners are not humanities or social science people,” Wilhelmy said. “As long as you can define and frame what you are doing as serving the public good and prove that you actually care about the issue, you will be what they are looking for. My advice is to stick to issues you’re passionate about.” 

Wilhelmy said he plans on applying to internships in Europe for human rights agencies and migration focus groups. He said his dream career is focused on international relations and human rights policy, which the scholarship is helping to kick-start.

Yali Beit-Arie, a junior sociology and philosophy major, told Pittwire that the scholarship will allow him to focus on issues such as education access, criminal justice, and immigration reform. He said he hopes to visit Europe during his summer work.

“The United States notoriously lacks proper publicly funded social welfare resources, so it would be illuminating to compare and contrast what I witness while abroad in comparison to what I have experienced and learned about in the United States,” Beit-Arie said.

Ledermann said in addition to receiving financial assistance, each recipient is assigned a coach to look out for the students and ensure they are staying on track with the goals of the scholarship. 

“The coaches are ‘near-peer,’ meaning they are close to us in age and understand what we’re going through because they’ve recently experienced what it’s like to be a college student,” Ledermann said. “My advice to people who are hesitating to apply would be to just go ahead and do it.”

Editor’s Note: Kiera Ledermann is a senior staff writer at The Pitt News.