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April 13, 2004 > Mission San Jose High School student wins Congressional Award

Mission San Jose High School student wins Congressional Award

by Praveena Raman

Kate Aspell, a sophomore at Mission San Jose High School, will be awarded the Bronze Congressional Medal by Congressman Pete Stark, on April 17th at the Fremont Senior Center, Paseo Padre Parkway, at 9:00 a.m.

The Congressional Award program is organized by the U.S. congress for young adults ages 14 through 23 years. Through this program young Americans are challenged to stretch beyond their comfort zones and achieve goals that they set for themselves. The goals are in four program areas-public service volunteer, personal development, physical fitness and expedition /exploration activities. Participants are guided through the goal setting process and the requirements and guidelines by adult advisors and "validators." Validators are usually people who are knowledgeable in the program activity.

Advisors and appropriate validators are chosen by the participant. According to the number of hours completed in a particular program area, participants are awarded one of six levels of recognition - Bronze, Silver and Gold certificates and Bronze, Silver and Gold medals. Hours completed are cumulative and can be carried over to the next level while working towards achieving that goal.

In the Public Service Volunteer area, participants share their time and talents for the benefit of others. This requires sensitivity, perception of need, determination, perseverance and dedication. The service activity must be performed without pay, compensation, or school credit. Participants should not focus on issues but provide a direct service that would benefit the community at large.

For Personal Development, participants expand their horizons while developing individual interests, social and life skills. A full time student can use a part time job towards Personal Development and similarly a participant employed full time could count educational activities for hours in this category. In the third program category of Physical Fitness, the Congressional Award challenges participants to set and achieve measurable goals in either team sports or individual activities leading to improved performance or greater physical fitness.

The final category encourages participants to develop a sense of adventure and discovery by either taking part in an expedition in the wilderness or immersing themselves in an unfamiliar culture. Organizing, planning, training and completing this program requires self-reliance, determination and cooperation.

Kate Aspell learned of this program through her mother's friend and decided to register in it and challenge herself. In the course of a year she worked as a Girl Scout Unit Program Aide; volunteered to help at LOV Newark's Thanksgiving Dinner; assisted in a Home for Senior Citizens doing arts and crafts and playing Bingo with them; worked with the park service to clean the environment and do some planting at Quarry Lakes and a park in Ardenwood; helped Chadbourne Elementary School Students learn how to play the trumpet; improved her Spanish skills, worked on improving her ability to play the trumpet; worked as a soccer referee and continued improving her Wu Shu (Chinese martial arts) skills.

These activities helped Kate earn the required number of hours in the Public Service, Personal Development and Physical Fitness program areas while becoming proficient in activities she enjoyed and developing new skills in other areas. However, for Kate the program area that she enjoyed most and which proved quite challenging was the Expedition/Exploration area. Living in a culturally diverse area, she decided to explore and immerse herself in an unfamiliar culture. She chose to learn more about the Indian culture as she had many friends from India.

As part of this exploration she visited Udupi Palace (Newark), Bhindi Jewelers (Newark), Dhan Laxmi Boutique (Newark), Taj Mahal Imports (Newark), Naz Cinema (Fremont) and San Francisco's Asian Art Museum. Kate visited Udupi Palace with her Indian friends and tried some South Indian food. This was quite challenging for her, as she had never eaten Indian food before. She was introduced to a variety of pancakes (savory not sweet) both steamed and pan-fried. She ordered the cheese Uthapam but found that she liked the Dosai that her mother had ordered better. Besides these she also tried vadai, idli (steamed pancakes), bajji, chilly pakora, bonda and rose milk. According to Kate the rose milk was very sweet and cannot be drunk in large quantities. She also found that food was served on stainless steel plates and containers, which is common in India.

At Bhindi Jewelers Kate saw that 90% of the jewelry is made with yellow gold and 10% with white gold. "The jewelry was exquisite and had intricate designs. This was my favorite part," says Kate. "The stones that were commonly used were emeralds, rubies and diamonds. Jade and pearls are rarely used. Brooches were also not common in Indian jewelry. I enjoyed looking at all the different varieties of jewelry." Next, at Dhan Laxmi Boutique, she saw dresses like salwaar kameez, lehnga cholis, and sarees, most made with cotton or silk. She and her friends visited the Indian grocery store Taj Mahal Imports. Here the items that caught her eye were the varieties of lentils and unusual vegetables like the snake gourd.

Kate and her mother also decided to see a Hindi movie at the Naz cinemas in Fremont. When they arrived at Naz they found that the shorter film that they had planned on seeing did not have subtitles so they resigned themselves to see the longer Hindi movie, Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon, that had subtitles. At the theatre Kate found a curious mixture of American and Indian culture in the food that was sold and also in the movie itself. The popular popcorn, candies and sodas were there but also samosas and guava and mango drinks.

"When we went to see the movie my mother and I did not know what to expect. Our friends were not free to go with us that day and we were on our own," explains Kate. "We ended up seeing a three hour movie which started with the actors speaking in English and switching to Hindi later on. The acting was more dramatic with a lot of singing and dancing, like seeing a musical with spoken lines. But the most surprising part was having an intermission in the middle of the movie." She found that apart from a variety of colorful Indian dresses, the actors also wore western clothes. She adds that it was a very different experience, but a good one, something that she would like to repeat.

Visiting the San Francisco Asian Art Museum was another way that Kate expanded her education in Indian culture. The galleries in the museum had mostly sculptures with a few tapestries and paintings. Besides a statue of Buddha, the sculptures were of gods such as Vishnu and Shiva. Rooms displayed artifacts from Northern and Southern India and she noted that the South Indian items were not as detailed as those from the North. Overall she came away with some knowledge about the similarities and differences between the cultures in North, Central and Southern India. "The program is a very good learning experience," says Kate. "It expands your horizons, benefits the community and you have a great sense of accomplishment while having a lot of fun. I would definitely encourage everybody to try it."

Kate just finished playing her trumpet in the orchestra for Mission San Jose High School's musical Les Miserables. The musical program was very time consuming but fun and she met a lot of different people participating in the show. She is also a member of Mission High's Symphonic, Jazz and Marching Bands and is looking forward to their trip to Spain next year. She would like to continue playing her instrument in college while pursuing a career as a chef.

The Congressional Award is open to all. It has no minimum grade point average requirements. It accommodates young people with special needs or disabilities who are willing to take the challenge. It is a fun and interesting way to get more involved in something people already enjoy or something they would like to try for the first time. Participants move at their own pace - on their own or with their friends.

This is not an award for past accomplishments. Instead, young people are honored for achieving their own challenging goals. More information on the program can be obtained by writing to The Congressional Award Foundation, PO Box 77440, Washington, DC 20013 (202) 226-0130 or sending an email to or on their website

Interested participants can also contact the Western Region contact person Erica Wheelan Heyse, Senior Program Manager, PO Box 77440 Washington, DC 20013. Tel: (202) 226-0130, email: >A HREF="">

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