Five Stanford students awarded inaugural Obama-Chesky Voyager Scholarship

Oct. 23, 2022, 10:09 p.m.

Five Stanford juniors were selected for the inaugural Voyagers cohort, a scholarship program that aims to support students committed to careers in public service. The program was created by former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama in partnership with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.

The first Voyager cohort is composed of 100 students chosen from a pool of nearly 1,800 applicants from across the United States. The scholarship program includes financial aid of up to $50,000, a 10-year travel stipend and access to a network of mentors. Scholars also receive funding and free Airbnb housing to pursue a so-called “Summer Voyage,” where scholars can work and travel around the world to gain international experiences. Moreover, the Stanford awardees will congregate Nov. 17 for a fall summit in New York, where they will meet Obama, Chesky and the other scholars in person.

In line with the Voyager’s broad definition of public service, all five Stanford recipients bring different backgrounds and interests. Their commitments to public service include support of the queer Hmong community, the development of human-centered technology standards, public education, resource equality in global tech and inclusion in technology-focused industries.

Chali Lee

Chali Lee ’24, who is studying political science and minoring in Asian American studies, intends to further pursue his work within the queer Hmong community through the scholarship program. “Growing up, I truly believed I was the only queer Hmong person to exist, and I didn’t meet any other queer Hmong individual until I was about 17 years old,” Lee said.

With the travel opportunities presented by the scholarship, Lee said he plans to explore new perspectives of queer Hmong communities in Southeast Asia and other parts of the U.S. and to become a voice for their stories.

Erik Rozi

Erik Rozi ’24, a computer science major, said he is passionate about the intersection of technology and government. In particular, he said he is interested in exploring how people can use technology and artificial intelligence for social good to modernize governments.

For his “Summer Voyage,” Rozi hopes to intern at a startup relating to tech and government, and he plans to travel to Europe. “I never traveled by myself outside of the country, so it would be super cool to experience culture as well as tech policy in Europe,” Rozi said.

Frances Suavillo

Frances Suavillo ’24, an English major, said she is passionate about public education equity. Suavillo has worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District since high school and intends to continue her work in public education throughout the Voyager program.

She grew up in Carson, Calif. after immigrating to the U.S. from the Philippines when she was nine years old. 

“I saw how difficult it is to try to succeed in a community like mine where not a lot of people really expect you to,” Suavillo said. “There’s barely any people from my city who get into college.”

Through mentorship and travel opportunities as a Voyager, Suavillo hopes to further boost her public education skills to be an advocate for teachers and students in her hometown, Carson. “The only way I know how to really make a difference in my community is through education,” Suavillo said. ”So I just try my best to go back there and help out whenever I can.”

Itbaan Nafi

Itbaan Nafi ’24 is a Bangladeshi American student studying product design, computer science, and international relations. With the funding and mentorship provided by the scholarship, Nafi hopes to implement an educational workshop in Bangladesh during his “Summer Voyage.” 

The workshop’s goal is to teach low-income university students in Bangladesh ways to utilize the intersection of computer science, political science and product design to better tackle issues within their own communities. 

“I had an idea about [the workshop] before applying to the scholarship,” Nafi said. “Once the [Voyager] opportunity came, I figured now is my chance to actually implement it and make a difference in the world.”

Makenna Turner

Makenna Turner ’24, who is majoring in computer science and product design, focuses on using her background in technology to make tech spaces more equitable. Her passion for creating more equitable tech workplaces is rooted in personal experience. “It just feels like there’s a lot of disrespect and people don’t value women’s ideas,” Turner said.

Turner said the Voyager scholarship will allow her to travel to Japan and the Netherlands, two places with different work cultures from the United States. She hopes to shadow and interview women who work at rising tech companies in those locations and observe how they navigate their environments.

‘A tremendous opportunity’

All five Voyager scholars expressed their gratitude for the program’s mentorship network and the financial aid that alleviates their college debt. As the scholarship is need-based, applicants had to demonstrate financial need in order to be considered for the program.

“I’ve been working three jobs over the last two years to get myself through undergrad and I also send money back home to my family in the Philippines,” Suavillo said. “It’s just a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders knowing that I don’t have to work myself to the bone to finish college.”

In addition to funding, the Voyager scholarship provides coaches, who support the Voyagers along their journey. Referring to the offered mentorship, Nafi said: “It’s a tremendous opportunity and I want to make the most of it.”

Rozi echoed Nafi, expressing gratitude for the different perspectives and lived experiences mentors can provide: “The mentors have great insights about other potential [career] opportunities that I haven’t even considered.”

Lee said that his coaches have helped him connect with Hmong professors and work out his travel plans. “I really seek to pull that from their mentorship, to see how I can make this vision that I have for my community actually come into fruition,” Lee said.

As students who successfully went through the application process, the Stanford Voyagers share their personal tips for students interested in applying themselves.

“Being committed to public service at a core level, not just checking boxes to get a scholarship, is really important,” Rozi said.

“Show that you genuinely care and you really want to make the most out of this opportunity,” Nafi said, adding that showing one’s willingness to be an active community member in the scholar cohort is essential.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” said Suavillo. “Just do it. Apply for it.”

This article has been updated to reflect that Ibtaan Nafi is also studying computer science.

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