This week marks the official kickoff for the Distinguished Young Women (DYW) national scholarship program that inspires high school girls from each state to “develop their full, individual potential.” The young women go through state and local competitions before finally reaching the national finals, which are held in Mobile each year. In 2020, the Distinguished Young Women National Finals went fully remote for the first time in its 63 years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That didn’t stop the 50 girls from around the country from making meaningful connections and enjoying their time in the program, however.
The 2020 Distinguished Young Woman of America, Elif Ozyurekoglu shared her experiences with us below:
Elif Ozyurekoglu, Kentucky’s representative, said she hopes her legacy is more than just being the first Distinguished Young Woman of America from a digital program. Although Elif had not known anyone who had previously participated in the program, she decided to join with the hopes of learning from a new experience. In high school, she wanted to branch out to new opportunities to help her with college applications and showcasing her talent in playing the piano and fitness from being a swimmer.
“What I loved about participating from the very beginning is that it’s a culmination of skills and talents that I am so proud to have in my life and believe all young people should have. It’s not just about one category; being a life-long swimmer, I loved being able to showcase my fitness, and I also got to express my love of speaking and self-expression. It really was such a great way for me to recognize in myself and improve my skills in being well-rounded,” Elif said.
Although the girls couldn’t get together in Mobile like they usually do, they still made the most of the situation. They bonded over Zoom calls, workshops, social media, and a group chat. Even though they’d never met physically, Elif still feels that they were able to create that sisterhood through the program. Elif has never been to Alabama, so she’s excited to visit Mobile with some of her newfound sisters and get to do the things in-person that have been put on hold because of the pandemic.
Going through the digital program was something that no one knew how to navigate at first, but Elif said she’s so thankful for her family and state program for helping her prepare for it.
“We started doing mock interviews months out over Zoom so I could get comfortable with the format, then we looked at everything from wardrobe to hand gestures in order to be fully prepared,” she said.
Elif learned a new piano piece for the talent portion, Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu.” She has been playing the piano since she was five years old, so it was only natural for her to challenge herself with a new piece for this program.
Since the participants couldn’t perform in person, they individually filmed their talent and fitness portions. They were then evaluated over a video call for the interview and self-expression portions.
On the night of the finals, she streamed the program with her whole family, some friends, and some fellow state-level participants. Elif enjoyed getting to watch it with her family and friends and said sharing that moment with them is something she’ll never forget.
Although she is the first Distinguished Young Woman of America from a virtual program, she knows her legacy will be so much more than that.
“I want to leave a legacy of open-mindedness,” Elif said. “As a first-generation Turkish American and as someone who didn’t know about this program until I started with it, all of this is very new to me. I couldn’t have done any of this without my community. I want to spread the message of open-mindedness, understanding that everyone is different, and knowing that there is beauty and strength in diversity.”
The role of the Distinguished Young Woman of America is so much more than a title, as she is expected to be a role model in the community and participate in different outreach programs. While that may have been a bit more difficult because of COVID, Elif committed to doing her best to fulfill her role in these circumstances.
“I want to leave a legacy of open-mindedness”
“I love the ‘Be Your Best Self’ program that Distinguished Young Women has. It’s really important for young people to have all the facets of this program in their life…from being healthy to being outspoken to being educated,” Elif said.
Elif has a message to young girls and people across the world:
“We are valuable and worthy of sharing our ideas and speaking up for what we believe in. I try to encourage the young women I come across to educate themselves and chase after the issues they’re passionate about; they can use their words and their ideas to make a change in the community and even the world.”
For information on getting involved with Distinguished Young Women, visit distinguishedyw.org