Leaders of the Now

It was 10:55 pm and I still hadn’t finished my application. The deadline was approaching way quicker than I expected and I could feel the combination of anxiety and adrenaline running through my veins.

Waiting. That’s all I was doing. Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours, hours

became days;

I ended up hitting the submit button as the clock struck a minute before midnight, feeling like my application was okay, nothing special, just okay.

We were in the midst of Hurricane Irma, so the lack of power left me with the only thing I could do: wait.

“Don’t be nervous”, “Just be yourself”, and “You’ve got this” didn’t help relieve the butterflies I was feeling when I logged onto my Zoom interview call.

I heard the ping of an email notification

We did it. We got in.

Under a Tree is proud to introduce this year’s UAT fellowship mentors, Katy Cook, Stefano Pastrana, Sameer Sridhar, Julian Suarez, and Rachel Rios, as they take you through their experience as a fellow in last year’s cohort and explain what it means to return this year as mentors.  

It’s been a full year since the day I attended my first Under A Tree live session. A year full of tears, self-realization, growth, laughs, memories, doubt, strengthened convictions, new people, and new ideas. UAT3 (‘17-’18) was something that I never knew I needed. It gave me the opportunity to reevaluate and fortify my beliefs. It gave me hope and solace when I needed it. It gave me friends that I couldn’t imagine my life without. Above all, it gave me lessons that I will carry with me as I walked through the rocky path that is life. Now, as a mentor for UAT4 (‘18-’19), I try to think about how different my life would be if I hadn’t gone through UAT3 or if Under A Tree had been founded at a different school, but I can’t seem to do it. I don’t want to believe in a world where people don’t care about social justice, where people lack empathy, or where kids are told that they are “too young” to be leaders, and because of Under A Tree, I don’t have to. Because of Under A Tree, I know that I will always have a group of understanding, strong, passionate, and amazing people by my side ready to help me fight the good fight, ready to make the world a better place than we inherited it.

                                                                               Lead Mentor, House of Campos, Katy Cook

This past school year, I had the privilege of participating in the Under a Tree Ethical Citizens Fellowship as it started its third year. From the start, I never could have been able to imagine the ways in which I would grow both as a person and an activist through the sessions and discussions lead by the amazingly capable leadership team. I am so honored to be able to contribute to UAT in a substantive way this year by joining the cohort again – this time as a mentor – to help new fellows guide their way through this process as they learn more about both themselves and the world around them. Now I can do for my fellows what the previous leadership team did for me – provide me with the platform, knowledge, and wherewithal to speak and act on the topics I was passionate about.

I am so excited to be starting this new, fourth year of Under a Tree and cannot wait to see the growth of my fellows and the ways in which I will grow alongside them (Go House of Hawking!!).

                                                                  Mentor, House of Hawking, Stefano Pastrana

Under A Tree has meant more to me than I can possibly put into words. I have never been in any sort of program like Under A Tree, as no other program that I have come across gives any sort of reassurance of what I personally find most valuable. I value my opinions, thoughts, and passions, far more than my less trivial responsibilities. I would rather pour all my ambition and work into something promoting things that actually matter, instead of studying for some test I have the next day. The things we cover in Under A Tree may seem like surface level stresses at first thought,; but in all reality it is so important to discuss these issues so something can hopefully come out of it.

That is another thing that I value so much about Under A Tree — it gives all the fellows that go through the fellowship an outlet to be passionate about whatever topic they see fit. We put our wonderful ability to not only be activists, but more importantly organizers, to an amazing use by leading missions, capstones, and discussions.

My desire to return to the program y senior year as a mentor was primarily influenced by the mentoring I received last year from Shada Thykandy(mentor for the mighty House of Mazari), She exhibited so many traits that I value in all the wonderful human beings that I try my very hardest to surround myself with. She was outgoing, respectful, educated, well spoken, and had the most amazing sense of humor. I hope that at the very least, I can give my fellows as amazing of an experience asShada gave me.

                                                                             Mentor, House of Dumezweni, Julian Suarez

Under a Tree has been a fulfilling and eye opening experience from the first session to the last. The fellowship has prepared me for practical activism and has taught me the necessary skills I need in order to inspire change. My leadership skills have exponentially grown, not only in my civic duties, but in all instances of my life. Under a Tree has presented me things that I can never unsee, and I have learned things I will never be able to forget. My core values & beliefs have been tested & revised over and over again within my year as a fellow in UAT. The journey has inspired me to embark on my own exploration to find self. I can no longer ignore the plights & injustices of others through what I have learned in UAT. I hope to inspire and provide an informative and fruitful experience for my fellows this year. I want to facilitate their growth and help them better themselves through this life changing journey.

                                                                     Mentor, House of Lee, Rachel Rios

When the fellowship started, I found myself surrounded by like-minded individuals who wanted to createchange as much as I did. Little did I know that, by the end of the year, I would form lifelong bonds with every other student there. I also had the pleasure of being in the House of Ono, working closely with four other fellows throughout the year and our mentor, Zoe Lee. As the year came to a close, I reflected on the myriad of life lessons I learned and came to a simple yet vital conclusion: this fellowship is the best thing I have ever done in my entire life. I realized that I needed to do everything in my power to continue this family another year so that more students could feel what I feel, which is why I decided to apply to be a mentor. I always had the intention of helping other students in their high school journey as a mentor, but the thought solidified into a reality this year.

This year, as a senior, I have the pleasure of being the mentor for the House of Riordan. I wish to build familial bonds within our house to let my fellows know that they too have a support system they can fall back on whenever they need to. Moreover, I want my fellows to expand their curiosity, and “turn every stone” around them in order to absorb as much information about the world around them as they can. With this knowledge, I hope to help them develop their voices and ideas, allowing them to formulate clear opinions that they can elaborate on whenever they need to. I also hope to aid them in trusting themselves, and help them realize that anything is possible with the courage of conviction.

Even though we live in a world that is filled with many jarring injustices, more often than not, these problems are confronted by silence. I want my fellows to remember that, when the whole world is silent, their voices can and will be impactful, even when the rest of the world may be silent. I want them to know and remember that they will move mountains with their voices.

                                                                                Mentor, House of Riordan, Sameer Sridhar

An End And A Beginning

An End And A Beginning

If you were to tell me a year ago that my life would be forever altered in just a few months, I would have scoffed in disbelief and brushed it away without a second thought. Nothing anybody said would have ever led me to believe that it was the efforts of a man on a mission and a group of the most open-minded and willing individuals that would create an impact on the person that I am today and continue to be every day.

Under a Tree Expo/Commencement '18

This year, the 2017-2018 third Under A Tree fellowship cohort was able to not only accomplish so much, but showcase what they have worked on so tirelessly at our annual Under A Tree Expo/Commencement. The fellows were given the opportunity to present the highlights of their capstone social awareness project to friends, family, and distinguished community members. Their efforts were also rewarded with $11,100 in college scholarships (over $20,000 to date).

This year’s fellowship and leadership team (Andres Castillo, Donna De Castro, Tabitha Cherubin, Jhanae Douglas, Zoe Lee, Nicholas Mijares, and Shada Thykandy) have worked tirelessly and produced work that has the capacity to raise the awareness needed to incite the change that will propel us into a more just world. Through their hard work, passion, and dedication, they were able to truly impact the significant change that not only embodies their own spirit and interests, but the overall mission of Under A Tree.

Please check out our photo album below as well as a few selected video clips from the evening:

Rachel Rios, on immigrant and refugee rights

Jhanae Douglas, introducing the House of Shahidi

Mia Luna, on the importance of civic discourse

Camille Dumit, on colorism and the beauty industry

Paul Reyes, on the effects of the “model minority” myth

Jose Perez, on challenging rigid gender norms

Alexis Gonzalez Meyer, presenting the Gonzalez Family Scholarship for the Culture of Community

Julie & Hector Rodriguez, presenting the Rodriguez Family Scholarship for Resilience in Leadership

Kyle Vasquez-Schultz, presenting the Garcia Family Scholarship for Women’s Leadership & Empowerment

Sheila Meyer & Marissa Manos, presenting the William Mayberg Scholarship for Wisdom & Justice

Sabrina Flores, presenting the Kathy F. LeMay Scholarship for Transformative Authenticity

Daniel Meyer, presenting the Benjamin Butler Memorial Scholarship for Courage & Integrity

Sabrina Flores, presenting the Sabrina Flores Scholarship for Love, Power & Justice

Daniel Meyer, sharing closing remarks with the UAT3 Ethical Citizens Fellowship grads

Thanks again to the inimitable UAT3 Leadership team and Ethical Citizenship Fellows. We are already accepting applications for the 2018-19 cohort. We would also like to specially note next year’s upcoming leadership team — Katy Cook, Andrea Martinez, Stefano Pastrana, Rachel Rios, Sameer Sridhar, Catalina Cardenas, and Julian Suarez, who we know will continue to work to make UAT even better and more vibrant for our fourth cohort.

~Shada Thykandy, UAT2 Fellow, House of Socrates, and UAT3 Mentor, House of Mazari and incoming freshman, University of Florida, '22.

Farewell, Under a Tree

If someone were to ask me what Under A Tree was, I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s not something you can just explain in one sentence. It’s a family, it’s a community, it’s an environment that we can all come together to share our thoughts and love one another as well. Under a Tree has sparked a flame in my life and I’m forever grateful for that. I can’t believe I have gotten so close with everyone in a matter of 36 weeks. It’s been a long journey of loving myself first and meeting new people as well. I never told anyone this but coming to every session has brought a bittersweet moment for me. Because I always knew that the time was going to end but I didn’t think it would end so soon. I’m going to graduate in less than a week and it’s kind of frightening. I will officially be going into adult life June 21st and I am actually terrified. I met this wonderful group of great people this year and I can’t believe I’m leaving everyone but it’s a bittersweet thing. I want to give a special shout out to my house. I was so lucky to be in the same house as Stefano, Andrea, Toyin, Serena and Nick. In the beginning, I never would have guessed that we would all be so close with each other. We argue sometimes but it’s out of love. I’m so sad that I’m leaving Andrea and Stefano behind but I have faith that they will continue Sagan’s legacy. Thank you everyone for putting up with me and making this one of the best years of my life. I learned how to hug properly because of you guys :). I love each and every one of you and hope everyone will be successful in the future.
— Michaella Saintil, House of Sagan

Thank You, UAT

Thank You, UAT

In the last 9 months, I’ve felt more emotions than I ever have in my entire life. I’ve been overwhelmed, drowning, stressed, elated, heartbroken, excited, loved. Also, in the last 9 months, I’ve met the best people I’ve ever known in my entire existence.

The Race

The Race

“Wear your running shoes and be prepared. The person who wins the race tomorrow wins the scholarship.”

My first thought was, crap. I can’t run fast to save my life. Little did I know under what conditions exactly I’d be running.

Toxic Masculinity

Toxic Masculinity

As a man who does not necessarily conform to the traditional male archetype – the strong, assertive jock who would much rather play basketball than write this blog post – I have always struggled under society’s expectation that I should “man up” — and the most effective way to cause emotional pain within a man is to tell him that, in fact, he is not a man at all

Fellows Respond with Accountability and Action After Nearby Stoneman Douglas Shooting

Fellows Respond with Accountability and Action After Nearby Stoneman Douglas Shooting

"So the next time you see a teenager and think they’re too young to make up their minds, especially when trying to influence politics, remember we all want and deserve to be listened to, just like we’ve listened to adults all these years. The only difference is now we’re fighting to be heard back." ~Camile Dumit

The Religion Roundtable: Reflection, Rumination, and Refutation

Raising children with or without religion. Confronting scientific evidence while reconciling it with our own faith. Reflecting on the parameters of an afterlife. Pondering a world devoid of religion entirely.

The world’s greatest theologians, scientists, and philosophers have found themselves at a loss for a clear answer to these very points – yet on Thursday, February 8, 2018, the fellows and mentors of Under A Tree, along with their extended community, attempted to do just that at UAT’s 3rd Annual Religion Roundtable.

They engaged in civil discourse on the nature of religion, how people interacted with religion, and how they interacted with each other in the context of religion. They convened 180 students, parents, siblings, and community members at Somerset Academy High School in South Florida to tackle this – to build empathy, engage in intellectual and impassioned dialogue, and gain insight into the beliefs of their neighbors and community.

A look at the photos below reveal the engagement of all participants and the open environment created by the robust dialogue. Civil conversation creates compassion.

The goal has always been to foster in not only fellows, but for all in attendance, a sense of awareness, accountability, and the agency to carry the discussion out of that room and into all aspects of their lives. Events like this remind us exactly why we want to empower young people to be leaders of the now and not just leaders of the future.

As we carry forward the legacy of leadership and activism, we are reminded from events like these that ceaseless dialogue will remain fundamental regardless of where we go.


Shada Thykandy is a senior, UAT '17 alumna, and Mentor of the House of Mazari for UAT's 17-18 cohort. She was born in South India and has since lived in Singapore, Minnesota, New York, and South Florida. Her household includes her two supportive parents and younger sister. Shada regards school as her highest priority but also enjoys writing, reading, and listening to music. She is an active member at her local mosque, and loves learning about different cultures and engaging in intellectual conversation regarding the controversial issues our American society faces. 

Suffering Silently

For a while, I've been suffering silently.

From the discovery of my tumor, to questioning my identity, and now to my grandmother dying, this unit [Editor's Note: we are currently in Stage V of the Fellowship, focusing on Religion, Faith, Spirituality, and Doubt) has specifically been hitting really close to home for me.

I remember after the first meeting of the religion unit I cried to myself softly. I wanted to talk about my struggles but every time I tried to open up, I froze. I never really expressed it, but I've been questioning my faith privately. It has been a while since I prayed. I still believe in God, that's one thing I know for sure. But for me personally I've always questioned why bad things always happen to good people. It's a thought that has always been racking my brain.

My questioning began two years ago after I was diagnosed with Fibroadenoma. I was angry with God for a while, and I started to get into more fights with my parents. Sophomore year was a scary time for me.

I haven't prayed since then.

At one point I felt like God wasn't listening – so I stopped caring. It was hard going through that stage in my life and not having anyone to run to at the time. I felt like I was going to hell for a while because I was questioning my faith. I haven't prayed in over two years, but today I went to church and asked God or whoever up there who was listening to lay their hands on my grandma and heal her. The doctors have already told us that she's dying, but I can't just picture it. I want her to see me graduate this June, and it saddens me to know that she won't even make it before March hits. I just wanted to say to tell your loved ones you love them, before it's too late.