8 Amazing Students Who Are Changing the World

Image shows a teenager standing on a rocky outcrop, overlooking a lake that's surrounded by mountains.We’re used to looking up to established businesspeople, inventors and campaigners – people like Richard Branson, Angelina Jolie and Steve Jobs – as role models, but it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of influential people providing inspiration to students around the world who are still students themselves.

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While many students are so busy concentrating on their schoolwork and having fun with their friends that they don’t even have time to watch the news, there are a few young people who feel so passionately about making the world a better place that they somehow find the time, when they’re not at school or doing homework, to stand up for what they believe in and do something about it. The people on this list – all students or student age – are each changing the world in their own unique way and proving that there are plenty of teenagers and young people out there who can command as much respect as people much older than them. If you needed any proof that people your age can achieve incredible things, look no further than this list of impressive young individuals…

1. Malala Yousafzai

Image shows Malala Yousafzai sitting with President Obama and his family.
Malala meeting President Obama and his family.

Who better to kick off a list of inspiring students than Malala Yousafzai, the courageous young woman shot by the Taliban aged just fifteen, for nothing more than wanting better education for Pakistani girls like herself. She was just eleven when she wrote a blog for the BBC – under a pseudonym – describing life under Taliban rule in Swat, Pakistan, and its lack of educational opportunities for women. Becoming increasingly recognised for her efforts in campaigning for women’s education, she fell victim to a Taliban gunman in 2012 in a planned assassination attempt on her way home from school. She was brought to Britain, where she has made a miraculous recovery and launched herself into further campaigning, raising awareness for the plight of millions of children who have no access to education. She’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, set up her own charity – the Malala Fund – to help widen access to education, and she’s addressed the United Nations in an inspiring speech that showed her phenomenal wisdom and maturity.
Now living in the UK, Malala has won worldwide recognition, meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace and Barack Obama at the White House. She was described by Ban Ki-moon as “our hero” during the United Nations’ first ever Youth Takeover event, which was led by Malala. As well as winning a huge number of awards and honours, she has also been awarded with an honorary degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax. Inspired by her father’s own campaigning, Malala has declared that she intends to pursue a career as a politician and campaigner – and, judging by the reception to this exceptional young woman so far, it looks set to be a brilliant one.

Image is a button that reads "Browse all Student Life articles."2. Jo Armstead

Image shows a microscope view of Aspergillus fumigatus.
Aspergillosis usually only affects people with a weakened immune system – such as people with cystic fibrosis.

For those who think that work experience equates to making the tea and coffee and generally being a dogsbody, take note of Jo Armstead’s work experience summer project, which has resulted in a significant step forward in the treatment of cystic fibrosis. The 21-year-old medical student from Newcastle University was on a work experience placement at a hospital in Manchester, analysing reams of data from 75,000 adult cystic fibrosis sufferers around the world, when she spotted that the apparent link between cystic fibrosis and the aspergillus fungus was more extensive than previously thought. She found that half the sufferers whose data she looked at were infected with the fungus, a finding that was published in the Public Library of Science, a leading journal. This fungus causes bronchitis and APBA, a condition that involves the immune system making an exaggerated response to the fungus.
Jo’s painstaking research has led to a better understanding of the condition and the extent to which aspergillus is linked with it, and this new knowledge of the scale of this problem will ultimately lead to better treatments and an extended lifespan for sufferers. Not bad for a summer of work experience!

3. The late Stephen Sutton MBE

Image shows a Buckingham Palace guard awaiting the Trooping of the Colour.
Birthday Honours are announced at the time of the Queen’s official birthday. Stephen died on the 14th May 2014 and his MBE was announced on the 14th June.

Teenage cancer-sufferer Stephen Sutton made umpteen headlines prior to his death aged nineteen, thanks to the huge amount of money he was able to raise for charity. His optimism in the face of terminal illness inspired tens of thousands of people of all ages to donate, whilst many more followed his efforts to complete the adventurous activities on his ‘bucket list’. Achieving a total of £4.2 million in donations to the Teenage Cancer Trust, Stephen’s efforts posthumously earned him an MBE. Stephen’s bucket list can still be viewed on his Facebook page if you’re interested in coming up with a similar list of goals for yourself, and people are still donating to his JustGiving page for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

4. Yash Gupta

Image shows a snapped pair of glasses.
Breaking his glasses was the impetus for Yash to set up his charity.

Yash Gupta was 14 when he broke his glasses and realised that life without them was extremely challenging. That’s what inspired him to set up a charity called Sight Learning, which aims to donate used pairs of glasses to the third world for the hundreds of millions of children whose families can’t afford them. Now 18, his not-for-profit organisation has managed to donate over $850,000 worth of pairs of glasses to underprivileged children in countries such as India, Honduras, Haiti and Mexico. Talking to CNN, he cited his inspiration as being “That dazed look the first time (children) get glasses, and just seeing that turn into joy and happiness”. Glasses help children to achieve a good education, with which they can then better themselves, so the repercussions of Yash’s work go far beyond simply allowing poverty-stricken children to see more easily.

5. Nick D’Aloisio

Image shows the Yahoo! sign with flowers in front of it.
After the purchase of his app by Yahoo, Nick became one of the youngest-ever self-made millionaires.

Voted one of the Time Magazine’s most influential teenagers in 2013, Australian teenager Nick D’Aloisio is the 18-year-old web developer responsible for Summly, an app through which users can read summaries of the news that are more easy to read on smartphones. He created the app when he was 15, and it picked up an Apple Best App award in 2012. Such was the scale of the response to this handy app that it caught the attention of investors, including Ashton Kutcher and Yoko Ono, along with Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing. Most importantly for Nick, the app caught the attention of Marissa Mayer, who had recently been appointed as CEO of Yahoo, which went on to acquire the app for $30 million when Nick was just 17. He’s now heading up the resulting new Yahoo incarnation of his app, which is called Yahoo Digest News, for which he is product manager. He’s living proof of the money to be made and the career success to be enjoyed from smartphone apps, and, given that he’s still at school, he has many more years ahead of him in which to wow users with further apps designed to make our lives more convenient.

6. Nicholas Lowinger

Image shows a pair of brown shoes for children.
Lowinger was shocked to see children without shoes in homeless shelters.

Aged just 15, US teenager Nicholas Lowinger set up a charity called the Gotta Have Sole Foundation, an organisation dedicated to providing homeless children with new shoes. His move to help these children was inspired by a visit he had made to a Rhode Island homeless shelter ten years previously, aged just five, where he learnt the startling fact that some of the children in the shelter didn’t even own any shoes. Nicholas recognised that not having any shoes meant that these children were unable to take part in normal activities, such as an education and sports; some were having to share shoes with a family member, meaning that they missed school on the days when it was someone else’s turn – severely hindering their prospects.
Since starting the Gotta Have Sole Foundation, Nicholas has managed to donate, through the charity, over 7,000 pairs of shoes to children in homeless shelters in numerous US states. This has had a huge impact on the lives of the recipients, who are able to lead more normal lives and take advantage of the same opportunities as children from more privileged backgrounds. What’s more, being given a pair of shoes raises the self-esteem of these children and helps give them the confidence they need to work towards a better life. Nicholas has received numerous awards and recognition for his work, including being chosen as a Three Dot Dash Global Teen Leader and appearing on America’s famous talk show, The Today Show.

7. Ionut Budisteanu

Image shows a Google self-driving car.
Budisteanu’s self-driving car is vastly cheaper than the Google version.

Another of Time Magazine’s most influential teenagers is Ionut Budisteanu, a 19-year-old Romanian scientist who came up with an ingenious design to build a self-driving car at a fraction of the price of similar (more well-publicised) efforts from search giant Google. His design brings the idea of mass-producing self-driving cars closer to a reality, as it costs just $4,000 to make his design (compared with the $75,000 needed to make one of Google’s), despite making use of clever artificial intelligence and camera technology to help the car identify its surroundings and potential obstacles. Coming first in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for high school students, Ionut won a $75,000 prize for his design, but it’s not his only project. On his website, he numbers the projects he’s worked on as over 50, including – incredibly – a device to help blind people see with their tongue. At the root of many of them is his interest in Artificial Intelligence; he’s even invented his own programming language for it, called AILab. In his own words, “My greatest satisfaction is to try to use knowledge to improve people’s lives, and especially to create all kinds of software and devices to help individuals.” He’s doing a good job at it so far – he’s even had an asteroid named after him by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory!

8. Blair Brettschneider

Image shows the Chicago skyline.
GirlForward helps girls get settled in their new lives in Chicago.

Blair Brettschneider was in her early twenties when she founded a not-for-profit organisation called GirlForward, dedicated to helping young female refugees in Chicago adapt to a very different way of life that they find upon moving to the USA. On the face of it, the girls Blair helps are like any other teenage girls, with the same interests and ambitions – only they’ve often lost parents, survived bomb blasts and fled their countries in terror. Building a new life for themselves in the United States can be easier said than done, as living in the US couldn’t be more different from the war-torn countries they’ve left behind. They face challenges such as learning a new language, settling in at a new school, and dealing with a hefty culture shock. That’s why Blair set up her charity: to help them by mentoring them, teaching them about life in the US and giving them the social skills they need to adjust to their new life. Many of these young women not only have to worry about their schoolwork – they often have relatives to care for too, for whom they have to translate everything and help with everyday interactions made difficult or impossible by the language barrier. It’s hard to imagine what their lives are like, but GirlForward is there to provide an invaluable array of support through its series of programs, which include a mentorship program through which volunteers mentor girls for a whole year, meeting weekly.
So, next time you’re in need of some inspiration – perhaps schoolwork is getting you down, or you’re worried about what you’re going to do for a career – dig out this list and remind yourself about what these incredible young role models are already achieving for the good of mankind. You don’t have to start up a charity or win a prestigious award to change the world in your own special way, or earn recognition from those around you: as long as you’re content with your own contribution to the world, that’s what matters. And, as these teenagers show, you don’t have to wait until you’ve left school or university to get started!


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Image credits: banner; Malalaaspergillus; Birthday Honours; glasses; Yahoo!; shoes; car; Chicago.