Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Nikhil Johnson Is Helping To Change Our World

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Success requires sacrifice. If you truly want to continue striving for more, losing things from your normal habits is bound to happen. For me, some of these sacrifices were positive and allowed me to steer clear of distractions. Other times, these sacrifices also took away vital time with my family and friends. It’s important to find the sacrifice equilibrium here.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nikhil Johnson.

Nikhil Johnson is currently a freshman honors student at the University of Arizona majoring in Molecular Cellular Biology, Physiology, and a minor in Film. His social impact stems from his role as a Chief Science Officer (CSO), a student-led program allowing 6–12th graders to be STEM ambassadors. Despite being a college student, Nikhil continues his role in the CSO alumni program. As a former member of the International Leadership Council, Equity for Everyone Committee, and City of Phoenix Sustainability Officer, Nikhil’s impact ranges from STEM advocacy and environmental initiatives to technological equity. Pursuing a career in medicine, Nikhil works to combine his interest in community development and healthcare while amplifying it to his college campus.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Hi, it’s great to talk to you all! I was born in Doha, Qatar, but my family is Indian, and we moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 2007. I was surrounded by a great support system in my 2 parents, my elder brother, and my elder sister. Since I was young, my parents fostered my sense of curiosity, primarily in STEM, and I was enamored by its intricacies in the world around us. Due to my mother’s perpetual endurance as a nurse, I was motivated to follow her path into the medical field and leave a positive footprint on the global community.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

You know that moment in middle school or high school when you felt like school was incredibly boring? Yeah…I definitely felt that. I got out of almost 8 years of it! Thankfully, that’s where the Chief Science Officer program (CSO) stepped in to make some changes. As a student-led organization, the CSOs are 6–12th grade STEM ambassadors that represent their respective schools. Through the implementation of action plans, these students have the opportunity to connect with mentors and resources to make changes to the STEM initiative on their campus, community, state, or even nation.

Being student-led, CSOs who show incredible dedication have the opportunity to get promoted across levels and leadership positions (cabinet, state, international) to help make program decisions for their fellow CSOs. This format has been incredibly sustainable for the several years of this program’s existence and has allowed the development of the next generation of STEM leaders.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

While my feelings of inequity in the resources given to students were a huge motivation for my work as a Chief Science Officer, my original cause is much simpler. To be honest, I was simply feeling bored in my classroom. STEM was incredibly underrepresented in schools, and when they were represented, they were extremely monotonous. My role in STEM advocacy worked to simply make learning fun by changing the stigma of STEM being nerdy. By displaying the interdisciplinary nature of STEM in our world, I was passionate about showing the beautiful facets of our future workforce.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Before the Chief Science Officer program, my hopes for STEM advocacy were simply a dream that could never be approached. There was no way for a voice like mine to make a difference in the community — I was simply a speck of sand on a beach. While I had important things to say and changes to make, nobody wanted to listen to some random kid. My opportunity to step up came when the Chief Science Officer position opened in my middle school with elections being posted. Joining the program allowed me to not only gain a position of having my voice heard, but it also gave me the right physical and mental resources to make it happen by myself!

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Getting my foot into STEM advocacy and making a name for myself through the Chief Science Officers required 2 incredibly important skills. Firstly, it was important that I made connections instantly. These people become your biggest supporters not only with physical resources but also being your cheerleaders. Getting your name out there allows you to make a greater impact in the future when more people are interested in supporting your vision. Secondly, many people commonly forget it (despite being the most important thing) — make sure to find things you really want to pursue! As I planned out my action plan, I brainstormed what I was truly interested in and ways that I could do something innovative that wasn’t done before!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One of my favorite projects was pitching a 5 million-dollar STEM summit bill to the Department of Education and the White House. It’s a crazy feeling getting that email asking to contribute to something that big, and when it was approved, it felt even greater. Whether it was the adults part of the Chief Science Officer program, the representatives from the government, or the lobbyists that helped transform our voices, the people I met along this journey have been some of the greatest people I have had the privilege of talking to. This project, I believe, was the key factor in being selected as one of Arizona’s 18 Under 18.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m sure that everyone struggled when we made our transition into Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. All those times you forgot to unmute, couldn’t figure out how to change your background, or all the meetings you wore pajamas after just getting out of bed. One of my funniest mistakes had to be my first speech on Zoom during the Arizona SciTech Festival Kickoff Conference. Doing my speech, watching the chat, and sharing my screen in front of 100s of people, was the recipe for disaster; I kept stuttering and accidentally showing the wrong tab that I just got so embarrassed. However, as I look back, I clearly remember how supportive everyone was. The amazing messages in the chat and personal emails I got after were extremely heartwarming. People truly want to see you, especially us kids, to succeed! Don’t feel like you’re alone!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

While the obvious answers would be my parents, one of my most influential mentors has been Kelly Greene, the former director of student success for the Chief Science Officers program. As a Chief Science Officer, I grew as a student ambassador, making changes to my school’s STEM initiative through community action plans. When I met Kelly almost 4 years ago, I was terrified of getting out of my comfort zone, so much so that I was terrified to do something as simple as order at McDonalds. Over time, Kelly has become my greatest mentor in life, single-handedly growing my diverse skill set, advising each of my community projects, and encouraging me to seek discomfort in various forms. Without her guidance, I would never have had the opportunity to discuss my STEAM footprint in local, statewide, and national-level conversations! Kelly’s guidance motivated me to create a connection with my community and make a tangible impact. Not only that, but with her help, I can probably order at McDonald’s now without a problem. While she isn’t a part of the program anymore, she sent me off to college with a notebook of motivation and quotes I carry with me every day.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of my favorite projects of all time was working on technological equity for underprivileged students. Through the Chief Science Officer organization, we had the opportunity to partner with Iron Mountain Data Centers to donate 100 Chromebooks to people who were lacking the tools to succeed during the COVID pandemic. We ended up passing them out like hotcakes, some to people we knew, but one story truly stuck with me.

David, a student at the high school I went to, was one of the people who received a Chromebook. I never talked to him before, but he reached out after I posted on my social media asking if anyone needed a laptop for school. 3 years later, I caught up with David on Instagram and was completely blindsided by a heartwarming message: “That Chromebook you gifted me senior year still carrying me through Biochemistry. Thought I should thank you again for that. Can’t wait to see all that you’ll continue to accomplish and the lives you’ll impact! Never change Nikhil”. At a time when I was struggling to see the tangible impacts of the work I was putting in, one message changed my life. Thanks, David.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

To address the issues of STEM resources in the community, I believe this is a two-way issue. For one, politicians need to listen to young people and get their input while making more resources available for students to get involved. Whether that’s monetary support, events, or STEM ecosystems, there are so many ways for legislation to improve for the sake of students. On the other hand, society has a big role to play in fostering collaboration among ourselves. If we truly want to see change happen, we can’t do it alone. Stop trying to do everything on your own and work together to accomplish your dreams!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Over the years and with the help of several mentors around me, I had the chance to compile a list of things that I wish someone would have told me when I first started.

1. It is vital to find your “why” for doing what you do. A lot of people say they want to “change the world” or “make a difference” which are extremely valid but it’s important to also connect it to you. Making it personal is what connects your extrinsic and intrinsic motivations and makes you want to continue your journey when things get tough. For me, I hated the feeling that success was only possible for those with the right resources backing them, and was determined to make the statement that success is a viable option no matter your background.

2. Success requires sacrifice. If you truly want to continue striving for more, losing things from your normal habits is bound to happen. For me, some of these sacrifices were positive and allowed me to steer clear of distractions. Other times, these sacrifices also took away vital time with my family and friends. It’s important to find the sacrifice equilibrium here.

3. Have fun and take breaks. It is so easy to get lost in your work in your striving for the best of the best but forget your mental health on the way. I touched on it in the previous tip, but in my journey for success, I paid the price of my mental health and became burnt out at the peak of things. Helping others requires you to help yourself!

4. Diversify your impact. I got stuck on the idea that as a student voice advocate, I had to do one thing to “fulfill my role”. However, it’s important to try other things and make connections between your passions. For me, I used my role to introduce initiatives in the environment, technological equity, and policy.

5. Failing, but failing fast, forward, often, and smart. Fortunately, the philosophy of failure is changing nowadays as people understand the importance of an open mindset. However, I realized I couldn’t just fail. I had to take advantage of my failure to elevate myself farther than I was before.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

One of my favorite statements that I coined was “Make local changes that cause global impacts”. So many people believe that in order to make a difference in this world, you have to go big or go home. However, if you really want to make a difference, the true impact comes when you go locally. Helping a friend, a neighbor, or a community, and then working your way up creates a more personalized and fulfilling positive impact in the world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

While this person doesn’t necessarily relate to my role as a student voice advocate, I would love to have a private lunch with Matt Damon. With my interests in film and several films I’ve seen in my life, Matt Damon has been my favorite actor of all time. His ability to be a great actor, storyteller, and person has been a huge inspiration for me. One of my favorite things he has said was on the “Graham Norton” show, where he discusses the feeling of emptiness despite winning his first Oscar. His beliefs on not striving for superficial rewards continue to resonate with me as I find my motivation in my life.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on Linked In! Check out what I’m doing and what’s next for me:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Nikhil Johnson Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.