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Inspired by her mom, an N.H. teen started a nonprofit to help refugee students

A photo of Riyah Patel, the founder of New American Scholars.
Riyah Patel
High school student Riyah Patel started New American Scholars to help provide tutoring and social services to refugee students.

Riyah Patel was excited to start high school at Phillips Exeter Academy in 2020. But the pandemic changed her plans, like it did for so many students. Patel transitioned to remote learning and found it difficult to connect with teachers, engage in learning and make friends. She was frustrated and turned to her mom for advice.

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“I found that my experience somewhat mirrored her experience as an immigrant trying to navigate the American education system,” Patel said.

Patel found her mom’s transition to life in the United States was similar to the isolation she felt in school. She wanted to find a way to help those who may also feel that isolation.

Not many 15-year-olds start their own nonprofit, but Patel took the challenge head-on, and founded New American Scholars, an organization dedicated to providing tutoring and social services to refugee children.

Patel started with a group of 10 students. They’d work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Concord Public Library, covering everything from math to essay writing. Patel gave them each an exam she designed herself using old textbooks so she could see where their strengths and weaknesses were.

“They completed it and I saw the results and unfortunately they were quite disappointing. They were already being set up for failure at school because our school system has not prepared them enough,” Patel said.

Gradually, Patel said, the students’ confidence grew.

“The kids that I had tutored in the beginning, they lacked confidence in themselves, in their own academic abilities,” Patel said.

“What I ended up realizing pretty early on is that they were brilliant, they were engaged, they asked questions, they were genuinely invested in their education, and they were very eager to take charge of their learning. And it was incredible to watch that level of growth,” Patel said.

Patel says New American Scholars is about providing the support and community students who are new to the United States, and new to New Hampshire, need. She wants them to feel welcomed and compelled to stay in the Granite State.

“Refugees are part of the fabric of our state. They work in our businesses. They support our organizations, and they help make our state strong and vibrant. We need to make New Hampshire feel like a home for them, and I really do believe that it starts with the children,” Patel said.

Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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