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Your World. Bold & Bright
The newsletter to fuel — and thrill — your mind. Read for deep dives into the unmissable ideas and topics shaping our world.
Aug 27, 2022
Getting into a good college or university takes more than good grades in high school. You have to know how to make your application jump out in the pile with a killer college essay. That’s no easy task. Writing is hard, and hiring a private editor can be expensive. OZY Genius Award-winner Dyllen Nellis didn’t want that to be a barrier for students to get into college, so she did something about it. We’ll also catch up with fellow OZY Genius Award-winner Tony Shu who talks about his amazing work with homeless youth in Boston, and the importance of helping people help people.
Finding All The Rights Words: OGA Winner Dyllen Nellis
Education can change the world — but only when people have access. Using the power of storytelling, Dyllen Nellis is ensuring no student gets left behind when taking the next big step into higher education.
The young entrepreneur created a high-value, low-cost online college essay writing course that shows students how to promote their personal values and craft an application that boosts their chances to get into top colleges. Now, a couple of years after winning a $10,000 OZY Genius Award, she has designed a way to provide the course for free to underprivileged students.
“My college essay course prevents stress, optimizes students’ time and maximizes their chances of acceptance at their dream colleges,” Nellis told OZY. “It guides them step-by-step through the entire process and teaches all the strategies I have learned from years of research and working with students.”
Nellis knows her stuff. For her own college application, she plowed through numerous articles, books and videos to educate herself on the ins and outs of the process, resulting in a 100% acceptance rate in all eight colleges she applied to. That experience and knowledge was shaped into a step-by-step strategy that she packaged into a course designed to make higher education an attainable goal for all students, no matter their backgrounds.
"Most public high schools in the U.S. currently have too few counselors to meet all the students’ needs for personalized coaching on college essay writing," said Nellis. “Without proper guidance, students consequently lack the strategy to convey their full potential to colleges,” she said. “It does not have to be this way.”
An entire industry has formed around helping rising high school seniors apply for college, but many first-generation and low-income students cannot afford the consulting fees, and those economic barriers become a major disadvantage to many otherwise high-achieving students. Nellis’ goal is to bridge that information gap by expanding the reach of her course.
“I envision that my college essay course can be provided to all students no matter their income levels,” she said.
To do this, Nellis is looking to partner with high schools and other organizations to embed her college essay course into their curriculums. The necessary resource to write winning college essays now exists, Nellis said. “We just need to get this resource into their hands.”
In addition to helping students hone their writing prowess, Nellis’ course provides them insights to develop “skills in self-awareness, storytelling, time management and organization,” the young entrepreneur said.
By opening doors to top colleges, the program also aims to help budding students “unlock a stronger understanding of themselves and develop greater self-confidence,” Nellis said.
Fulfilling her aim to deliver a course that both helps students get into their dream schools and “improve their lives,” the program includes exercises that promote mental health. “This year especially, I have learned the importance of self-care,” Nellis said. “I tend to set extremely lofty goals and push myself to meet them, but this cannot be at the expense of my well-being.”
Road to success
Writing a college essay is typically viewed as a stressful process, but Nellis insists it can actually be fun once students become more comfortable and confident about their writing. It’s a chance to discover a sense of self and effectively communicate personal values, she says, adding that her course guides students every step of the way. “Students will learn the strategy and set themselves on a path toward success,” Nellis explained.
After accepting an offer to study at Stanford, Nellis now studies a self-created major called Human-Centered Design and Engineering. “It’s like a mix of computer science, entrepreneurship, product design and psychology,” she said — all the elements that help make her passion-turned-business thrive.
“Everyone has a story to tell, no matter how big or how small,” the OZY Genius said. “So many students have great stories to tell, but they just don’t know how to communicate them in the best way.”
Thanks to Nellis, more students are finding the right words.
It's no great feat to identify the myriad issues facing today's world. The bigger challenges involve how to make positive change and where to begin.OZY Genius Award-winner Tony Shu has something to say about that.
In 2018, as a Harvard undergraduate volunteering at a student-run shelter, Shu discovered that young people experiencing homelessness “wanted a job more than they wanted a home.” To address that issue, Shu, along with his classmate Connor Schoen, founded Breaktime, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping the cycle of homelessness and joblessness they were witnessing firsthand. The two students rallied the city of Boston, along with various partners in the area, to help young adults “obtain their first jobs in order to catalyze a positive cycle of skill-building, further employment, and, eventually, stable housing.”
In 2020, while working remotely during the pandemic as full-time students, Shu and Schoen managed to train and employ 25 homeless young adults to prepare and deliver 650,000 meals to Boston families. In 2021 alone, Shu and his team mobilized over $1.6 million in funding to support their mission. “Breaktime has now created employment opportunities for more than 125 young adults experiencing homelessness; 83% of our alumni continue on to further employment or education and 77% of alumni are now stably housed,” Shu says.
Helping people help people
The mission didn’t end there. By listening to the people they were helping, Shu and his partners identified another crucial need: creating community and the opportunity to be of service to others. “The stereotype of people receiving help is they need other people's help, whereas jobs at Breaktime have enabled them to use their skills and talents to give back,” Shu says.
For Shu, it was not just about how to “utilize our privilege in the service of others,” but discovering how giving — far from being onerous or difficult — satisfies a fundamental human drive.
Making positive change typically isn’t easy. But when someone believes in you, the task seems to get a bit lighter, Shu says. And as a recipient of an OZY Genius Award in 2021, he found that having someone believe “in the power and potential of young people” was “aligned with our values” and helped to broaden “the awareness about our organization and the resilience, hope and hard work embodied by Breaktime’s young adult associates.”
Shu says being an agent of change requires patience, solid relationships and strong character. “I think a lot of young people have a vision for how they want to improve their communities and the world, and we all want to see that change happen quickly,” he says. “Change truly does take more time than you might expect or want, but that time gives you the chance to build a strong foundation, build relationships and grow personally so that your team can rise to the challenge when the timing is right.”
At a time when things happen at lightning speed and dire problems seem to require swift action, Shu reminds us that we also need to practice patience and kindness toward others and ourselves. “It’s important to take steps each and every day to move the ball forward, but social change truly is a marathon and not a sprint,” he says. “We all have to take breaks, take care of ourselves and others and not take things too seriously!”
Shu hopes that Breaktime's story will help inspire the OZY community to learn more and take action to help end youth homelessness, which affects 1 in 10 young adults in the United States, according to a study by the University of Chicago. “This is a challenge that we can solve, but it will require mobilizing community members, political leaders, funders and more,” he says.
Shu also hopes that his experience in building Breaktime will inspire other young people “to dive deeply into the societal challenges they care about.” Everyone has something to give, he stresses. “Regardless of what experiences or skills we may or may not have, we always have the capacity to keep our eyes open to the challenges that others, or we ourselves, experience,” Shu says. “Deeply understanding problems is the seed of innovation. If there is an issue you do care deeply about, get involved, join an organization. Or if there’s a gap in the ecosystem, build your own initiative! We all have the chance to actively build the future we want to see.”
OZY is a diverse, global and forward-looking media and entertainment company focused on “the New and the Next.” OZY creates space for fresh perspectives, and offers new takes on everything from news and culture to technology, business, learning and entertainment.