White House

NJ High School Senior Meets First Lady After Winning Essay Contest

Zaniya Morgan-Lewis has not even graduated high school and she is already doing amazing things.

Zaniya was selected co-winner of a national essay contest initiated by First Lady Michelle Obama’s ‘Better Make Room’ campaign and Seventeen Magazine. The campaign encourages students to work hard in high school and excel in college. Students were invited to submit an essay about any obstacles to success they have faced and how they were able to overcome them. She and her co-winner were invited to the White House and treated to a full tour and an hour-long interview with the First Lady, which was covered in an article by Seventeen Magazine.

Zaniya described the experience meeting First Lady Michelle Obama as surreal.

“I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting her," she said. "Then, when she came into the room, she was so welcoming. She immediately gave each of us a hug.”

The First Lady also imparted wisdom on the girls, telling them not to be afraid of doing the extra things in life and warning them that people will always doubt them and they had to prove those people wrong.

Zaniya wrote her essay about overcoming the adversity she faced in 9th grade, when she switched from a public school to Doane Academy, a predominantly white high school in Burlington, New Jersey. The transition was a difficult one, but she was able to conquer it through her commitment to community service with the New Jersey National Guard Teen Panel, the Ronald McDonald House, and the Kindness Project, all of which she writes about on her website.

Zaniya cofounded the New Jersey National Guard Teen Panel along with other military kids to create a supportive community. Her father has served in the National Guard for 20 years and the experience has had a lasting effect on her. Unlike other military posts, the families of National Guard members are housed off-base in civilian neighborhoods, which can be burdensome on the kids. The panel hosts forums for the kids to talk about their experiences and plans fun events and activities.

Her experiences on the Panel have been wonderful, but she wanted to expand her horizons. Zaniya identified with the Ronald McDonald’s mission of helping families and decided to apply to serve on the Ronald McDonald House Teen Advisory Council of Southern New Jersey. Zaniya, and a few of her classmates who also volunteered with Ronald McDonald House, felt they were doing really important work and decided to bring community service to Doane Academy. Last year, they launched the Kindness Project at their school. The group boasts over 30 members and hosts an annual talent show to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House.

Zaniya firmly believes volunteering helped her through her transition to her new school. Helping others helped give her the confidence she needed to succeed.

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