Seniors Awad and Graves among 20 honored by Atlanta Intown newspaper


Kate Durden

Seniors Salaam Awad and Hunter Graves are among 20 honorees for the Atlanta Intown newspaper section “20 Under 20” that selects students under the age of 20 for their dedication to assisting others.

Kate Durden

After devoting countless hours to organizing volunteer events and spending hot summer days fueling younger students’ passion for coding, seniors Salaam Awad and Hunter Graves hope to inspire others to follow in their footsteps to benefit their communities. 

The Atlanta Intown newspaper has an annual section “20 Under 20” that chooses 20 students under the age of 20 to honor for their work in their communities. Among these 20 honorees are Awad and Graves. 

Wanting to help the community firsthand led Awad to join 21st Century Leaders during her sophomore year. As the club’s vice president, Awad has organized opportunities for students to volunteer and learn leadership skills. To her, the pivotal point of volunteering is knowing she made someone else’s day better, devoting time and energy to helping faces she will never meet. 

Snack the Backpacks involves packing food for students with food insecurities. Awad said this opportunity she assisted in organizing is an example of why she volunteers. 

“Sometimes, we’re doing volunteer events where we don’t exactly see the people that the volunteer work is going to,” Awad said. “For example, Snack the Backpacks, I didn’t see where they went, but I know that it definitely made those students’ day. That’s the best part for me.”

Growing up with computers, Graves found a passion for coding. For four years, Graves has been a program assistant with the Emagination program at Georgia Tech.Through this program, he has shared his love for coding with middle and elementary school students. 

“My biggest accomplishment is just helping the kids,” Graves said. “I find that really fun, and it’s good to help inspire them. I’ve seen the same kids from multiple years come back at Emagination. I’m teaching them, and we’re learning new things every year.”

Math teacher Gina Robinson taught Graves during his freshman year. Robinson took notice of both Graves’s personal and academic maturity.

“What I think is amazing is that he was in my on-level class,” Robinson said. “Right after, he moved into an honors-only track in math and is now one of the leaders in the Computer Science Honor Society.”

Along with teaching students coding skills at Emagination, holding the title of Communication Leader for the Black Student Union (BSU) and being a member of the Technology Student Association (TSA), Graves also takes part in a summer program that gives minorities the chance to address concerns they have around the world. 

“I’m with this thing called SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors),” Graves said. “Basically, it’s a group of minorities, like me. They saw that we were disadvantaged, and they wanted to help us and bring us together to help identify problems around the world. Most recently, we found racial bias in triages, and before that, we did water discrepancy in Georgia in more rural parts.”

Graves intends to enroll at Morehouse College to major in computer science. He hopes to continue to use his skills to benefit the community. 

“I plan on going into a career in coding and majoring in computer science when I get to college, using what I’ve learned from past years of experience to help other minorities and more disadvantaged groups,” Graves said.

Graves said Robinson was inspirational to him as she helped motivate him to reach his goals. Robinson felt a sense of pride for her former student when she heard Graves was selected for the 20 students under the age of 20. 

“[Graves’ accomplishment] is what keeps us [teachers] teaching,” Robinson said. “Just when our energy might be a little low, we think about the impact that we don’t know we have on students and how to move that forward.”

Mary Van Atta, sponsor of 21st Century Leaders for over 20 years, understands this sense of pride as she felt the same when she heard of Awad’s selection. 

“I think [Awad] exemplifies some of the best traits of a servant leader that I have seen in a student,” Van Atta said. “She is genuinely interested in helping others and genuinely leverages her skills and talent. She brings other people along with a positive buoyant personality. She engages other people and invites them to participate because she has such an outgoing and collaborative spirit. I just think she will continue to do great things throughout her life for people in her community.”

One of the projects Awad is most proud of took place last semester when 21st Century Leaders had an on-campus community service fair that gave students the opportunity to make connections with nonprofit organizations. Awad’s dedication to volunteering comes from a philosophy of giving that her parents have embedded in her. 

“I think that when you are able to help others, you should,” Awad said. “You never know when you might be in need of help. Regardless of what background you come from, that wasn’t given to you. You had no choice in that.”

Awad plans to attend Emory University in the fall and is interested in majoring in International Relations for undergrad along with gaining internship experiences that will lead her to law school. Through the long road to reach her goals, Awad keeps in mind the motivation driving her. 

“I hope to work in human rights, and I hope to create an impact,” Awad said. “A lot of work goes into that, and so, I understand that I have to do a lot of work in order to achieve an impact. Impact is my motivation.”

Awad and Graves hope to leave a mark on their communities and inspire others to do the same. Graves wants people reading Atlanta Intown’s “20 Under 20” article to take away from his story to stay devoted to their passions.

“You can do it, too,” Graves said. “Just stay dedicated, and you’ll get it.”