What I Learned as a Classy Awards Fellow

By Contributing Author
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Classy Awards Fellowship Program  gives those interested in social entrepreneurial endeavors a chance to engage with top leaders and innovators from around the world. Classy Awards Fellows work with the Collaborative + Classy Awards team to gain expertise in their sector and then apply their newfound knowledge, unique perspective, and creativity as a voting member of the Leadership Council.


When I’m asked to describe why I decided to pursue a career in medicine and public health, I have a story ready to go. It’s logical, stepwise, and ends with an uplifting message reminiscent of Disney’s latest creation. Even my work to date, from co-founding a nonprofit organization to the research I conduct on physician empathy to my decision to pursue medical school, all fits seamlessly into the narrative.

But, like any good story, my explanation has been edited for the benefit of my audience. The few who have been a part of the editing process, my close friends, colleagues, and advisors, know that, like everybody else’s, my path is not linear and each step was most definitely not meticulously planned.

Despite society’s call for order, serendipity is truly the master.

So, while the Classy Awards Fellowship has now been integrated into my story, the truth is I stumbled across the opportunity in 2013 without any knowledge of how I would fit with the organization or what the experience would entail. I questioned what I would gain over the numerous other experiences that exist in healthcare.

I was intrigued by a fellowship that offers young social entrepreneurs interested in social innovation the opportunity to engage with leaders and promote social causes. It especially resonated with me given my work with the Pure Water Access Project, Inc., a 501(c)3 research nonprofit organization I co-founded in 2010. Because sociocultural barriers can cause up to 50 percent of clean water interventions to fail, this organization works with groups abroad to apply a research mindset to help ensure their clean water projects are carried out in a sustainable manner. To date, the group has directly supplied clean water to hundreds of families and worked to improve the efforts of multiple organizations in Peru, Nicaragua, and El Salvador among other areas. Also committed to fostering the talent of young people, much like the Classy Awards, the Pure Water Access Project, Inc. also houses a two-year fellowship program that seeks to provide students nonprofit management experience long before they earn a formal degree.

So, like any hackneyed story goes, I decided to take a chance and apply.

The application process required reflection on the past as well as critical thinking about the future of my given cause sector. Just by applying, I realized that this opportunity was different from the other experiences in which I’ve been fortunate enough to partake. On one hand, the Classy Awards looked to recognize accomplished young people committed to doing good. However, they also needed to understand their applicant’s ideas for the future because the organization clearly planned to make use of youthful talent to help them promote one of the premier ceremonies for philanthropic work.

“There are few outlets committed to propagating ideas that originate from youths … it was exhilarating to be working in tandem with individuals like Richard Branson and Helene Gayle to select and introduce the most innovative, impactful organizations to the world.”

When I was chosen as the fellow for the Health Services cause sector, I felt a part of a team and was excited to begin contributing. Young people have a unique perspective on social issues, and the Classy Awards recognizes that these voices need to be shared. I, along with the other Fellows, wrote numerous blog posts for the diverse Classy Awards audience. There are few outlets committed to propagating ideas that originate from youths, and it was exhilarating to have the opportunity to spend more time on developing ideas rather than focusing energies on finding the few niche publications that might be amenable to publishing young people.

However, the Classy Awards Fellowship was far more involved than a few blog posts. The Fellows were also voting members for the Classy Awards themselves. It was exhilarating to be working in tandem with individuals like Richard Branson and Helene Gayle to select and introduce the most innovative, impactful organizations in a variety of cause sectors to the world.

All of this was before the Collaborative + Classy Awards event. If the weekend had just been conversing with individuals like Dell’s entrepreneur-in-residence Elizabeth Gore and meeting folks like Premal Shah, the president of Kiva, it would have been incredible. If it had just been attending workshops led by the heads of organizations from around the world, it would have been incredible. If it had just been the inspiring, empowering awards ceremony itself, it would have been incredible.

That the weekend was all of the above as well as meeting other young change-makers and learning from the impressive Classy team made it one that I will never forget.

Perhaps most powerful, the Classy Awards Fellowship is something that continues to galvanize all who were a part of it. I left more knowledgeable, more committed, and more able to make strides towards my own goals because of the mentorship I had received from the Classy Awards team, the weekend attendees, and even my peers.

The education I received from the Classy Awards inspired me to introduce new approaches to my own nonprofit, the Pure Water Access Project, Inc. It helped inspire me to form a team to publish an e-book documenting youth perspectives of public service, a work entitled “Project YouthPact: Youth Perspective on Public Service.” The Classy Awards is an opportunity with staying power long after the Fellowship concludes.

To think that I almost decided to not apply seems ludicrous now. Whether you’re a young entrepreneur, researcher, nonprofit employee, or graduate student, the experience is worthwhile. You may not have planned on applying for the Classy Awards Fellowship, but whether you’ve stumbled across the opportunity through a friend, a colleague, or simply a Google search, thank serendipity and edit your script—you may just be in for the most galvanizing experience a young public servant can have.

Alex Chaitoff, MPH, is a medical student at the Cleveland Clinic and 2014 Fellow.

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