Seaside teenager Norah Takehara was one of more than 500 young people across the country to receive the Congressional Award this year for achievements in public service and personal growth.

Established in 1979, the Congressional Award Foundation is the highest honor given by the United States Congress to young Americans. Participants work at their own pace to achieve personalized goals and have the opportunity to earn bronze, silver, and gold Congressional certificates and medals.

The program recognizes initiative, service and achievement in youth ages 14-23, with a particular focus on setting long-term goals. The Congress Award is designed to encourage young people to become active in their communities while growing as young adults and achieving their goals.

The class of 2022 winners was the largest gold medal class to date, with 549 young people from 41 states across the country receiving the medal.

The Gold Medal takes at least two years to earn and requires 800 hours of activity in four program areas: 400 hours of community service, 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness, and a five-day expedition or exploration. days and four nights. travel.

Takehara spent three years completing the requirements and also earned a STEM star for completing additional science, technology, math, and engineering activities in pursuit of her medal.

Takehara said she heard about the program through a friend and decided to get involved because she thought it would be a good way to make connections, hone her skills, and pursue his love for community service.

“I come from a family (that) values ​​giving back to the community,” Takehara said. “It was always something that was instilled in me and that I really enjoyed.”

Takehara supplemented her community service hours by volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium each week. For the fitness requirement, she helped teach at her local dance studio and danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Monterey Peninsula Ballet Theatre’s 2021 Nutcracker performance. Takehara chose the culinary arts as her area of ​​personal development, where she practiced new recipes and honed her cooking skills.

The exploration program area required immersion in an unfamiliar environment or culture. Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Takehara has opted to supplement the requirement with virtual exploration. She chose Amsterdam as her location and researched different activities to explore, including food, art, architecture, and public parks. After completing her research, she wrote a 10-page article about what she found.

Takehara said it’s been difficult to continue pursuing her goals and making the necessary hours during the pandemic, especially with her extra school work and activities.

“There were definitely times when I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish this and get to the gold medal level that I wanted to be at,'” she admitted. combine school and college applications with writing a 10-page paper for that other program, a bit of burnout can occur. But it was so worth it in the end.”

Takehara, who attended Ocean Grove Charter School, was able to reap the rewards of her hard work when she took an upper class trip to Europe over the summer. When it was time to visit Amsterdam, she was able to use the knowledge she had gained through her virtual exploration project and see the sites she had researched and written about.

Takehara, now a freshman studying dance and psychology at the University of Arizona, said she learned a lot about herself during her time chasing the gold medal. of the Congressional Award.

“I really think I’ve learned how important volunteer work is to me,” she said. “And I developed a lot of skills in terms of…communication, professional writing and working with a group of people.”

Along with the skills and life lessons she’s learned along the way, Takehara said she believes receiving the award will help her in many ways in her future career, from helping her stand out other applicants for future opportunities, or through the connections she has made with other people enrolled in the program. The Congressional Award also has an extensive alumni network and provides additional opportunities for networking and further development.

“It was totally worth it in the end,” Takehara said. “To be able to put that on my resume and have a physical gold medal – to have that is really cool. And I’m really happy to have finished the program.