YouthSpark Star

Challenge for Change

These five students won the Challenge for Change contest with their ideas to address social causes.

Learning Social Change Across the African Savannah

On a hot August day, five strangers found themselves setting foot on African soil for the first time. They were college students from all over the United States and shared one commonality: a vision to affect social change locally and globally.

Meet Meghan, Brian, Sneha, Adam, and Christina, the winners of the Microsoft YouthSpark Challenge for Change contest. The challenge asked young people to choose a cause and come up with an idea to address it using Windows and Microsoft Office. Thousands of university students entered the contest and pitched projects. Out of 20 finalists, the public voted for the five winners based on videos they created about their proposals.

The winners each received $2,500 to help fund their projects, a Microsoft Surface, a Windows Phone 8, and an expenses-paid volunteer trip to Kenya. After the award was announced, several were lauded as hometown heroes and featured in local papers. The Sacramento Bee interviewed Christina Ong about her peace-building project. BostInno featured Brian Hickey and his plans to help children in Africa. The Unionville Times wrote about Meghan Shea and her Minds (to) Matter project.

Their projects are diverse, but all focus on sparking change through social good.

Jeremy realized his interest in programming through his love of video games. “I want to be a software engineer. I've always liked to create stuff, that's why I want to make 


YouthSpark Ambassadors Meghan Shea, Brian Hickey, Sneha Jayaprakash, Adam Dunn, and Christina Ong pose with Mama Gladys and Mama Leah, two community mobilizers they met during a volunteer trip to Kenya in August 2013.

Brian is a sophomore studying business and entrepreneurship at Babson College who is working to support education, healthcare, and sustainable development in rural Uganda. His project led campaigns to raise money for textbooks, solar panels, clean water, and a business-training center.

Meghan is entering her freshman year at Stanford University, planning to major in environmental science. Her project empowers kids to pursue science research and gives them the resources to develop ideas that tackle global problems.

Adam is studying architecture and physics at North Carolina State University. His project is a student-led youth leadership organization that galvanizes high school students to solve community issues.

Christina is a senior at the University of California, Irvine, studying political science. She designed a peace-building curriculum for children and educators that she wants implemented as for-credit courses in primary and secondary schools across the globe.

Sneha is a sophomore at the University of California, San Diego, majoring in computer science. She created an app that combines gaming and social networking to promote do-goodery among young people.

To get to Kenya, the five students journeyed two days by air, flying from Toronto to London to Nairobi, and then driving six hours to Mwangaza, a community of about 2,600 people in the Narok district where they would live and learn for three weeks.

They were not alone. More than 300 students attended school in the community that they would set up camp. They shared large tents with beds and dressers in a semi-permanent campsite. They dined in another large tent with the Kenyan students. They took showers out of a bucket. They helped carry water for miles.

They were hosted by Free the Children, an international charity that works to educate, engage, and empower youth to become active local and global citizens. Free the Children is a Microsoft YouthSpark partner, and is working with us to achieve our goal to empower 300 million youth around the world to imagine and realize their full potential.

It wasn’t the first time Free the Children and Microsoft joined forces. Microsoft helped bring Free the Children’s We Day to the United States for the first time. An all-day event for young people, the price of admission to We Day is a yearlong community service project, and the Seattle event brought together 15,000 students to celebrate the power of youth to drive social change.

The Massai warrior guide that led the Challenge winners through the Kenyan countryside.

The Massai warrior guide who led the Challenge winners through the Kenyan countryside.

In Kenya, Free the Children Founder Craig Kielburger worked with the winning students to make connections between their projects and real-life experiences. Kielburger took them to visit and volunteer on development projects in Free the Children communities and tour Free the Children’s first all-girls boarding secondary school. He talked to them about his heroes, ran self-discovery and leadership workshops, and helped the students create action plans for their projects.

Challenge winner Brian had already done volunteer work in Uganda. He wants to build a business and training center to provide new opportunities and jobs for youth. In Kenya, he learned about alternative income and community mobilizing. He said the research he conducted will help him further develop his project.

“It was so awesome to be around a diverse group of people with different ideas but equal amounts of passion,” Brian said. “We inspired each other and learned not only about volunteering but cultural enrichment.”

Sneha returned from Kenya excited to continue work on her project, Bystanders to Upstanders (B2U). B2U creates fun ways for local students to get involved in fundraising and charity by rewarding their random acts of kindness and community activism. She and her team are in the development phase and hope to launch the mobile app and website later this year.

Participants take a short survey through a mobile phone app, answering questions about their social issues of interest and what skills they possess that could further those causes. The app then offers a personalized set of challenges that enable the participant to earn points.

After a challenge is completed, the participant is rewarded with points that can be used in a mock store for things such as buying vaccinations for 50 children or providing clean water for a community. Sneha will use the $2,500 Microsoft award to pay for those prizes; she plans to seek donations from local businesses to continue the program.

“The most important thing I learned on our trip is that you don’t have to be an adult to participate in social change. There are really passionate youth out there and there are opportunities for them to be involved,” she said. “You can start from any age.”

Fellow winner Adam agrees: “Being young too often means waiting—waiting for high school, for college, for that internship, for a career,” said Adam. “But young people have a lot of energy and the potential to change their communities right now.”

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