May 2021 – Edina High School senior Aashna Kumar is among the first-ever graduates of the Edina Rotary Global Scholars program. As the name suggests, Global Scholars is a novel partnership between Edina Public Schools and the city’s two Rotary clubs, with additional financial support from the Edina Education Fund. Its mission is to imbue students with a rounded, global outlook and prepare them for international careers.
Kumar was, in a sense, an unlikely applicant for the new program; but in others, she was the ideal candidate.
On the one hand, she graduates with the Edina High School (EHS) Class of 2021 – mere months into the official launch of Rotary Global Scholars program. Customarily, students will enter as sophomores, allowing years to fulfill the program’s rigorous coursework, extracurricular and capstone requirements.
In reality, though, Kumar came in with a distinct advantage. “Rotary Global Scholars covers all my interests and utilizes all of my experiences,” she explained. “Because the program launched my senior year, it worked only because I was well down the right path already.”
Indeed, one could argue she’s been down this ‘path’ since birth. “I was born while my parents were working abroad in Thailand. After a year, they moved us to Singapore for five years.” Kumar spent the rest of her formative years in Germany and Switzerland, before the family moved to Minnesota before the start of her high school career.
“I’d say that environmental sustainability is my main passion,” Kumar said. When she attends Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this fall, she intends to study business and environmental science. “In a way, though, I think that my experiences abroad have fueled a side passion in global studies. After all, [we are] all living on the same planet. … Environmental issues are global ones.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought an abrupt halt to international travel, Kumar eagerly anticipated Edina High School’s scheduled conservation trip to Indonesia as part of Operation Wallacea. In years past, this partnership has brought EHS students to remote locales like Fiji and South Africa for unique work-study opportunities. Operation Wallacea expeditions are coordinated by chemistry teacher Lindsey Smaka.
Smaka also leads the fledgling Global Scholars initiative – one of several converging factors that drew Kumar to the Rotary program.
Another is Interact Club of Edina, a Rotary-sponsored group chartered at EHS in 2015. “The goal of Interact is to connect students with service needs in their local communities,” Kumar explained. “We organize fundraisers, such as a drive to support the people of Minneapolis [after the unrest] last summer. We also do smaller service projects, like making toys for animals in shelters.”
Kumar sat as President of the five-person governing board over the 2019-2020 school year. She transitioned to the role of Secretary for her senior year.
“Interact Club already had me engaged with Rotary” – one of the requirements for all Global Scholars. Another is competence in at least one foreign language. Kumar is fluent in French.
As a last graduation requirement, all Edina Rotary Global Scholars are required to complete and creatively present a so-called capstone research project. Every student zeroes in on one topic of significance across cultures and climates.
“I’m looking at sustainable agricultural practices,” Kumar said.
“First, I approached the Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis.” She did so for two reasons. “This perspective, the Indigenous voice, is one that doesn’t always get heard.” Moreover, the Native way of life has much to teach the world about environmental stewardship. “Their goal isn’t sustainability per se, but sustainability just goes along with Native American ways of preparing food. They care about the land, and they source local.”
As a counterpoint, Kumar is also in conversation with sources in South Africa. “While this is a country that is technically food stable, droughts and food transportation are a real problem.” Farmers and scientists are turning to innovative solutions, such as aquaponics, to overcome those challenges.
Earlier this year, Kumar enjoyed the rare opportunity to further her insights into South Africa by roleplaying the Minister of Energy for that country as part of the Model G20 Leadership Summit. Funded by a Rotary scholarship and held via videoconference in February, this particular summit hinged around the all-important topic of climate change.
“Because it was virtual, I got to speak with kids from around the world on [behalf of] South Africa,” Kumar said. “One of my teammates was from Mexico. Two were from China, and another from Japan. We had to overcome a language barrier … but I’m proud of the presentations we put together.”
In recognition of her own contributions at Model G20, Kumar’s peers voted her Best Minister of Energy.
Kumar says that her final capstone report will take the form of a podcast exposé. Podcasting is proving a popular medium for Global Scholars to share their findings, she says.
“It is so cool to research a specific country or idea, and then to explore specific ways to fix these actual world problems.”
For her work, Kumar was recently presented one of two Mayor’s Youth Service Commendations by Mayor Jim Hovland.