For Yale undergrads, Obama ‘Voyager’ scholarships offer access to the world

As inaugural “Voyager Scholars,” two civic-minded Yale students will receive 10 years of financial support from the Obama Foundation and Airbnb.
Diego Lopez and Abnner Olivares

Diego Lopez and Abnner Olivares

Diego Lopez ’24 and Abnner Olivares ’24 have a lot in common. Both are the first in their Latinx families to attend college. Both hail from Los Angeles and both share a deep interest in public service, addressing inequality, and seeing the world to learn more about the experiences and perspectives of others.

And last summer, the two learned of yet another commonality: They were among 100 American college juniors chosen to join the first cohort of Voyager Scholars. Established by the Obama Foundation and Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, the Voyager Scholarship supports college juniors who plan a career in public service.

Scholarship winners, who were chosen from some 1,800 applicants, are “from every corner of the country and share a curiosity about the world and the conviction to make positive change within it,” former President Barack Obama and Chesky said in announcing the first Voyager Scholars.

In addition to receiving up to $25,000 in financial aid for both their junior and senior years, Lopez and Olivares will also receive a $10,000 stipend and free Airbnb housing to support work and travel during the upcoming summer. Then, after they graduate, Airbnb will provide a $2,000 travel credit to each of them every year for the next 10 years so they can “broaden their horizons and forge new connections throughout their public service careers.”

Lopez and Olivares met as members of Sube, the Yale Latinx Pre-Professional Association. They were also both involved in the New York City-based Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, which promotes fair and equitable education for children and young adults, and have traveled together to Washington, D.C. to advocate for higher education policy reform.

Last November, they joined with other Voyager Scholars for the first-ever Obama Foundation Democracy Forum in New York City. During the event, they joined panel discussions and heard lightning talks featuring leaders and experts from around the world, examining such issues as the threats of disinformation, climate change, embracing pluralism in democratic societies, and how to build more inclusive economies. Speakers included university presidents and professors, former members of the Obama cabinet, journalists, and government officials from around the world. Obama himself addressed the crowd about ways to promote and strengthen democratic ideals worldwide.

It was a pleasure to meet President Obama,” said Lopez. “One of the reasons I’m involved in political endeavors now and would like to be in the future is because of him. Seeing him in person took my appreciation to a different level. It felt great to shake his hand. He has one of the firmest handshakes ever.”

A “HOPE” poster with an image of the nation’s first Black president hangs in Lopez’s dorm room in Berkeley College. Olivares’s bedroom at home in Los Angeles is also decorated with Obama posters.

For the longest time, I’ve told myself that I would meet Obama one way or another,” said Olivares, who remembers watching TV excitedly as a seven-year-old with his father when Obama was declared winner of the 2008 election. “I think it is just because of the kind of hope that he inspires, being our first president who is a person of color. It just heightens my confidence in the world and what the world can be moving forward.”

In monthly workshops, the Voyager Scholars gather for online discussions, often with governmental leaders. Most recently, they had the chance to talk with Cecilia Munoz, whose various positions in the Obama administration included serving as the president’s director of domestic policy.

At Yale, Olivares helped revive the organization formerly known as FLY (First-Generation Low-Income at Yale) and now called YFAM (Yale First Gen and/or Low- income Advocacy Movement), which advocates for and supports students who are the first in their families to attend college and/or are from families with low incomes. He is a first-year counselor in Silliman College [he was originally a member of the Class of 2023 but took a semester off during the pandemic] and is also active in the service-minded La Unidad Latina (LUL) fraternity on campus.

Olivares, who is majoring in global affairs, has designed his own summer internship, which will include visits to six U.S. cities to study urban inequality. In particular, he plans to investigate outcomes of the federal Opportunity Zones Program, which gives incentives to public and private stakeholders to develop economically distressed cities. He hopes to create a photographic docuseries based on his conversations with officials involved in development projects and with local citizens to illustrate his research findings.

Lopez is majoring in political science and is a Human Rights Scholar at Yale Law School. This summer he will be interning with Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juarez in Mexico City, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote and defend human rights in Mexico. Throughout his voyages, he is interested in in exploring the intersection of democracy, governance, and human rights to contribute to the construction of more just, equitable, and democratic societies.

The Voyager Scholarship opens so many doors and gives us access to the world,” Lopez said. “My advice to other students interested in applying for this great opportunity is just to believe in yourself and take a leap, and understand what public service means to you.”

Added Olivares: “Many different people contribute to creating a better world. You can run for office or you can be a doctor or you can lead a nonprofit. Leaders are needed everywhere. I think all you need to make a difference is a desire to help others.”

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