Empowering students to make their learning real

I’ve always believed that one of the best things you can do for kids is to show them that you believe in their ability to change the world. It unleashes their interests and passions and helps them care enough about what is happening around them to make a difference. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Cynics don’t build empires.”

At Colorado Academy, there are many classes, clubs, and other programs designed to ignite students’ passions, but among my favorites is a quiet program that is run by our Alumni Association. Each year, alumni vote and award the Jennifer Wu Memorial Fellowship to a Junior to pursue a summer project before his or her Senior year of high school.

“The idea,” says Alumni Director Sue Burleigh, “is to honor the memory of Jennifer Wu, a CA alum who passed away during her first year of college, and who left a legacy about the importance of living life with gusto.” Wu graduated from CA in 1992. During her six years at the school, she was known for her remarkable enthusiasm and vitality. Her CA classmates, family, and friends established a fund through which a scholarship is awarded each year to “encourage exploration and achievement in academic or other pursuits that contribute to scholarship, intellectual development, or personal enhancement.…”

Bennett Liu giving haircuts to Karen refugees at the Mae Ra Moe refugee camp

Bennett Liu giving haircuts to Karen refugees at the Mae Ra Moe refugee camp

Finding hands-on experience in Southeast Asia

For more than a few of the Scholarship recipients, the summer project is a solidifying experience that sticks. This past summer, CA Senior Bennett Liu received the award and used the small stipend to install solar panel systems at four schools that serve people of the Karen tribe, one of the largest hill tribes in Southeast Asia, near the Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp on the border of Thailand and Burma. Liu spent a month there (just 100 miles away from the scene of where the Thai boys soccer team was trapped in a cave for 17 days), working with the nonprofit organization, Project Kare. Working with local tribe members, he installed solar systems for four schools and a camp office. He taught English, played soccer with students, and even provided haircuts.

Liu used his courses in engineering to help install solar panels on schools at the refugee camp.

Liu used his courses in engineering to help install solar panels on schools at the refugee camp.

In his application, Liu wrote, “I hope to gain hands-on experience in real-world engineering. I have never implemented one of my engineering projects into the world for others to use, so I hope that I will get to experience the interaction between engineering and people with this project. In addition, since there are not many resources available in this refugee camp, I hope to learn how to be resourceful and work with what is available, rather than solely relying on store-bought materials.”

Further, Liu said, “I hope to grow as a person by becoming more independent and responsible for myself while pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone…being an Asian American at a predominantly Caucasian school, I can understand how difficult it is to be a minority. These Karen refugees are secluded in camps on the border of Thailand because the Burmese were killing them. I hope to gain empathy for these refugees, as well as redefine my beliefs of what it is like to be a minority.”

He brought all of his studies and resources to bear, including his courses at CA in AB Calculus, AP Computer Science, Advanced Data Structures and Statistics, AP Physics, and his extracurricular involvement in Community Council, on the Philanthropy Board, the Innovations Club, the American Computer Science League Club, Math Club, his development of an app for a homeless shelter, and his work on other solar projects.

He predicted what might happen: “Because of the nature of this project, I know it will throw challenges and obstacles my way, but nothing brings me greater joy than working through problems and finally getting to that point where I beat the setback.”

Working with local tribe leaders and Project Kare, Liu also taught English to Karen refugees.

Working with local tribe leaders and Project Kare, Liu also taught English to Karen refugees.

Returning to CA with profound new experiences

Installing the solar panels on a school for Karen refugees

Installing the solar panels on a school for Karen refugees

He returned with so much to share from his experience, as well as the ambition to start a school-sponsored club at CA for the Karen people.

Says Liu, “The generosity, kindness, and humbleness demonstrated by the Karen people changed my entire outlook on life. Without the support of CA and the Wu Scholarship, I would have never had this experience.” He also returned with letters of thanks from one of the school principals and a student.

I have had the pleasure of taking Bennett and his older brother Evan on my Utah canyoneering Interim. CA is a family school, and the Liu family has been a core part of our community for many years and in many ways. Both boys are true leaders. In outdoor situations, one needs to work as part of a team. On Interim, Bennett was a standout in terms of being helpful, showing initiative, and being a positive force. I am not surprised by his success. I feel fortunate as an educator to have gotten to know Bennett and to witness and benefit from his passion for making the world a better place.


These students have been recipients of the Jennifer Wu Memorial Scholarship since it was launched in 1996. 

1996: David McMurtry—Assisted a team of volunteers as part of a youth work trip on the Community Farm in Santa Fe, N. M.; Niki Yeazel—Attended a National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine in Houston, Texas.
1997: Cazes Martin—Participated in a four-week program, Explorations in Architecture, at the University of Southern California.
1998: Anders Hyde—Attended a four-day intensive program in Western-style fiddling at the Hartz Music Studio and took a trip to the National Fiddle Championship, both in Idaho; Matt Babin—Attended the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine in Washington, D.C.
1999: Kyle Boelte and David May (joint project)—Spent one week in the wilderness of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains hiking, climbing, reading, and learning to be self-reliant.
2000: Sara Schaffer—Studied with the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education in Poland and Israel, exploring Judaism and the struggles of the Jewish people.
2001: Brandon Potter—Participated in the Arapahoe Rescue Patrol youth search and rescue program.
2002: Susannah Hook Rodgers—Participated in cultural immersion, community service, and outdoor activities in Ecuador.
2003: Elizabeth Ruddy—Explored her Irish heritage by traveling and studying in Ireland.
2004: Sara Sisun—Studied creative writing and art in England, France, and Italy.
2005: Mac MacKillop—Took music recording classes at DUB MEDIA Studios in Denver, recording and mixing original music.
2006: Hillary Schoelzel—Attended the New York Film Academy Workshop.
2007: Mara MacKillop and Genna Smith (joint project)—Spent one week helping Hurricane Katrina victims.
2008: Marlena Hartman-Filson—Created a website for a Senior Community Center and the Monkey Toy Project.
2009: Hannah Williams—Created the “Head Plant” business to aid women living in Tanzania, along with an instructional video on making hats for sale.
2010: Sarah Rockford—Photographed mothers and their children at the residential drug treatment facility, Baby Haven, to provide keepsake photos to the moms.
2011: Paige Steadman—With the help of fellow CA students, Paige made dishes for the SAME Café on East Colfax Avenue.
2012: Anna Dennis—Taught a series of classes on self-defense at the Volunteers of America Bannock Youth Center, “I Will Fight Back.”
2013: Molly O’Neil—Worked with Children’s Hospital Burn Unit and Denver Firefighters Burn Foundation.
2014: Juliana Rodriguez—Worked with Grade 6-12 students in cityWILD, an organization that provides educational after-school programming for low-income, culturally diverse urban youth.
2015: Nick Bain and David Schurman—Research with climate scientists at NCAR on a potential method of mitigating climate change.
2016: Claire Greydanus—Initiated the “Hearts in Harmony” musical program at Horizons at Colorado Academy.
2017: Lila Arnold—Hiked seven Colorado Fourteeners in seven days.
2018: Bennett Liu—Provided solar power for Karen schools in the Mae Ra Moe Refugee Camp located on the Thai/Burma border.