A man points down at a table as he speaks

Arnav Dharmagadda participated in an accountability standards setting meeting at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) in September 2022, lending his expertise and perspective as a student. Dharmagadda joined educators, parents and other stakeholders at the meeting.
Photo by Jackie Thompson, Sept. 14, 2023

As a graduating senior at Russell High School (Russell Independent), Arnav Dharmagadda has spent several years learning content in classrooms. His high school experience also taught him lessons outside the classroom, literally and figuratively, as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in non-traditional instruction (NTI) during his first year.

“I spent a lot of time over COVID, where I was virtual and had a lot more flexibility, seeking out some other extracurricular opportunities within the state and outside of the state, too,” Dharmagadda said. “That opened some doors for me. I was able to pursue my own passions around policy and government both in school and outside of school.”

This year, Dharmagadda was recognized as a 2023 U.S. Presidential Scholar and in 2022 was a participant in the U.S. Senate Youth Program.

In 2021, Dharmagadda joined the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council, a group advising KDE leadership on issues relevant to high school students.

“I’m really grateful to have joined the Student Advisory Council. I think I got a real taste of what real government work looks like and how bureaucracy could be a tool for change,” he said. “I really appreciate Dr. Glass listening to students and making that a priority in his administration.”

Dharmagadda represented students during a standards-setting meeting in late 2022, joining superintendents, parents and other stakeholders to determine cut scores for Kentucky’s educational accountability system. Cut scores help define each indicator within Kentucky’s accountability system and overall school ratings. 

“In that room, speaking with all these people with so much lived experience, and then understanding the importance of my own experience as a student, that was really enlightening about how government can be informed by the needs of multiple stakeholders,” he said. “I want to be a leader in my life, listening to other people with different experiences and trying to form solutions.”

His interest in and passion for policy also led him to his experiences with government.

“The Senate Youth Program was an incredible experience,” he said. ” [I] got to hear from both sides of the aisle about the current state of politics and how young people can be the center of change.”

He said the U.S. Senate Youth Program prepared him to apply for the U.S. Presidential Scholarship opportunity.

“The U.S. Senate Youth Program gave me more life experiences to talk about in my presidential scholar essays, made me more prepared to fill out that application and made me more confident when submitting that application,” Dharmagadda said.

He also has led numerous student-voice activities, serving as a member of the Kentucky Coalition for Advancing Education and a Kentucky Student Voice Team, working on the policy group.

He was a youth “reinventor” at The Reinvention Lab, a program powered by Teach for America and at the Ashland Area YMCA, where he advocated for young people and provided tutoring services to raise money for programs.

Later this year, Dharmagadda will begin his studies as a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia (UVA).

“The Jefferson Scholarship is a separate foundation associated with the university that provides funding for all four years of study, gives you a paid stipend and provides all sorts of leadership development and character-building opportunities throughout your years at the university,” he said. “There’s a leadership camp after your first year, they also fund study abroad opportunities after your second year.”

In addition to these opportunities, Dharmagadda will receive funding to attend conferences and for living expenses during unpaid internships (if needed), along with support from scholarship alums. He said he feels well-prepared to pursue his academic studies at UVA.

“Right now, I’ve decided to go into a public policy major at UVA, and that also gives me the freedom to attain a master’s degree in my fourth year paid for,” he said. “Thankfully, through my public high school education, I got enough college credits to comfortably fit in a master’s degree in my fourth year, and the Jefferson Scholarship will pay for that, too.”

As a public policy major, Dharmagadda will study what he loves.

“It’s something that I’ve always been fascinated with,” he said. “I remember growing up, watching the news every day with my parents, and I think seeing the role government has in shaping people’s lives and the potential it has to be an agent for change and an agent for improvement is really inspiring for me.”

Dharmagadda understands the anxiety of filling out applications. However, he said encourages all young people to pursue prestigious opportunities.

“It matters less about your resume or accomplishments; it matters about your spirit and how you approach these situations,” he said. “If you are a dedicated person, and you want an opportunity, you need to apply for it first if you want any chance of getting it.”

If one’s heart yearns for an opportunity, Dharmagadda said that is reason enough to pursue it.

“The type of people that are going to apply for these opportunities and persist are the people that our Commonwealth needs to create change. And so even if you don’t get accepted, even if these opportunities don’t come around, you are still a powerful person with the potential,” he said. “Be yourself and be confident in your application, but don’t let it define you because I think each individual defines themselves.”