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Student Spotlight: Lajward Zahra, Young Women’s STEAM Prep Academy

(YOUNG WOMEN’S ACADEMY – Dec. 26, 2022) – Senior Lajward Zahra is a rock star at the Young Women’s Academy. Ranked No. 1 in the school’s first graduating class, Zahra recently received a full-ride scholarship to Rice University through the QuestBridge Match program. To celebrate, her classmates planned a ‘Dress like Lajward Day’ and wore long blazers and headbands to match her signature style. Community Engagement interviewed her virtually for this edition of Student Spotlight.


EPISD: How did you feel when you opened the email from QuestBridge?

Lajward Zahra: I was in shock. I think I literally spent most of the day in shock. I am barely starting to process the magnitude of this blessing even now.


EPISD: What does being matched with Rice mean to you?

LZ: Matching to Rice means that I really only have to worry about my classes for the next four years and what dorm I am hoping to get into. Champagne problems.


EPISD: How will being a QuestBridge Match make a difference for you?

LZ: I think being a Questbridge Match has opened so many doors for me that otherwise would have been shut. When you want to get into those top-shelf careers like an international lawyer or Wall Street broker, it is pretty important to build a strong foundation with established programs like Rice pretty early on.


EPISD: What activities are you involved in at YWA?

LZ: I’ve been involved in academic school-sponsored competitions like TFA (just placed first at the last Public Forum meet), National History Day, UIL Lincoln Douglass Debate, and Destination Imagination. Aside from being involved in academic school-sponsored competitions, I’ve also been a member of NHS all four years of high school, and YWA student council’s founding president and executive board member for three years.


EPISD: What do you look most forward to at Rice?

LZ: Definitely, the classes that have almost clickbait-level names. When I was researching Rice, I came across one called “Why Democracy Fails” and I was like, “I have to take this.”


EPISD: How will Rice further your career goals?

LZ: I plan on going to law school and working as a lawyer. Because I grew up in a border community and am an immigrant myself, international human rights law really calls to me. Rice is a place that will give me a strong background in political science, a deep understanding of historical contexts, and practice in forming interdisciplinary connections that I will need going into my career. Moreover, as an international lawyer, speaking multiple languages will be a huge asset. I already speak four, and I cannot wait to tap into the 10 Rice offers.


EPISD: What other top scholarships are you currently in the running for or have received?

LZ: I received a Young Writers Scholarship from Bennington College for $10,000 per year for 4 years. (Definitely not sure that counts as a top scholarship though.)


EPISD: What are your honors and achievements in high school? 

  1. 1. Scholarship to Attend the ACLU Youth Summer Institute (August 2022)
  2. Offered a scholarship to attend Belin-Bank Centers Summer Writing Residency ($2,000) - University of Iowa (April 2022)
  3. Princeton University Leonard Milberg '53 High School Poetry Prize Honorable Mention ​(April 2022)
  4. Gold Key Winner for Region at Large South for Poetry (February 2022)
  5. Gold Key Winner for Region at Large South for Personal Essay or Memoir (February 2022)
  6. El Paso History Day - first place in Group Documentary category; advanced to state (February 2022)
  7. El Paso History Day - third place in Group Documentary category (February 2021)
  8. El Paso History Day – third place in Group Documentary category (February 2020)
  9. Division Lincoln Douglas Debate second - (March 2022) 
  10. Division Lincoln Douglas Debate first place - (April 2021) 
  11. TEDx El Paso Speaker “The Necessity of Third Wave Feminism” (October 2019)


EPISD: Why has it been important to you to get involved in school?

LZ: Investing yourself in clubs and activities at school is always so rewarding for a laundry list of reasons, but being a member of the first graduating class at YWA and forming so many traditions and clubs has been particularly heartwarming. It is great to watch younger Warriors building up and improving something we started.


EPISD: What have you been doing outside of school activities?

LZ: I’m a La Semilla Food Center Raices Intern. I worked as a Raices Youth Fellow with them for two six-week stints in Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 where I would work in-person at their farm every Saturday and participate in informational/cooking nights every Thursday totaling six hours a week. I will be working with them again in Spring 2023. I was featured in their  blog last year:

I was a 2021 Frontera Fellow with U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar’s re-election campaign and a Democracy Summer Fellow through Rep. Escobar's partnership with Democracy Summer. During my six-week internship, I learned the ins and outs of canvassing, voter engagement, and general campaigning. These six weeks were also focused on planning and executing a philanthropic community event with my Frontera Fellow partner, Kiara. We decided to make toiletry kits for local residents experiencing homelessness. After fundraising and assembling, we successfully delivered more than two hundred toiletry kits to El Pasoans in need.

The City of El Paso Municipal Teen Court is a program founded about four years ago for teenagers with two goals. One, to promote an interest in teenagers interested in law, and two, to offer low-level juvenile offenders who have pled guilty an alternative to regular sentencing and improve their lives through positive peer influence. Instead of fines and violations on their permanent record, the teen defendants are given community service after being tried by their peers. I have been volunteering with Teen Court since Freshman year as an attorney and juror and since the 2021-22 school year, I have been a senior attorney.

As of 2022, I am a regular  contributor to The City Magazine and I have been published in Prism reports and Muslim Girl.


EPISD: What advice would you give students interested in applying for QuestBridge?

LZ: I think the most important thing about Questbridge is to probably get involved pretty early. I applied for the Prep Scholars program my junior year and that really gave me the head start and preparation necessary to tackle the match. 


EPISD: Anything you’d like to add? 

LZ: I have been tremendously lucky in my support system and in the people I have had the luck to meet. My teachers (especially Sophia Jacquez, Rebecca Guerrero, and Karla Hawkins for writing the best recommendation letters) at YWA have been the reason I got involved in so many things that I do not think I would have gotten involved with if I went to another high school. Ms. Guerrero, for example, sponsored me in every academic competition I have an award in (NHD, TFA, UIL). Mr. Pete Delgado told me about TED ED talks, and after presenting at the EPISD one, the TEDx El Paso chairman selected me to speak at TEDx EL Paso. And then, I met my mentor, Erin Coulehan, who is the editor of The City Magazine, while speaking at TEDx El Paso. Erin invited me to write for her magazine and has really sparked my interest in journalism. Finally, my three younger sisters who are all superstars, and my parents have pushed me every step of this process. I truly cannot be more grateful.