The Vegetarian Resource Group again received hundreds of applications for our two $5,000 college scholarships for graduating high school seniors who have promoted vegetarianism in their schools and communities. All of the students who submitted applications are impressive. However, what differentiated the 2011 winners is their years of ongoing commitment to vegetarian activism on a weekly basis.


A reference called Niki Gianni from Illinois “a local legend.” Niki has volunteered at Mercy for Animals in Chicago for four years, going to their office for three to four hours approximately once a week. Outside of the office, she tables and hands out vegan brochures and snacks on weekends.

At her high school, Niki is co-president of the vegetarian/animal rights club, which meets weekly and has more than 130 members. One of Niki’s projects is passing out vegan food from the Soul Vegetarian Restaurant at different schools in the area. Niki already has freshmen and sophomores lined up in leadership positions so they can keep her club going after she graduates. She is also involved with a Humane League MySpace Project, which encourages young women to go vegetarian by having them watch various videos and sending out imagery of farmed animals.

Niki became a vegetarian at age 12, despite her parents’ immediate wishes. Less than a year later, she 16 and her mother became vegans for ethical reasons. Niki says, in spite of her soy allergy, she loves being vegan.

Niki hopes to pursue a career as a veterinarian. She says, “I would like to work for either HSUS (the Humane Society of the United States) or Vets Without Borders someday—and while I realize I wouldn’t be making much money—I want to help animals in the most effective way possible. If that involves eight years of schooling, so be it. I’m ready for the challenge, and I hope this career will boost my rate of helping animals.”

Rachel Sandalow-Ash from Massachusetts became vegetarian after reading Jane Goodall’s biography when she was 8 years old. She says, “Unfortunately, in elementary school, I was not very sympathetic to those who did not make the same choice as I did. I was confrontational (some might say rude) in promoting my cause. In addition to hounding my dad every night at dinner, once, in fifth grade, I rebuked a friend of my teacher’s in front of the whole class for wearing fur. This brought me a stern reprimand from my principal and did not accomplish anything, leaving me incredibly frustrated. So, I decided to promote the cause in a less abrasive manner, and I was rewarded when my father told me he would stop eating veal and lamb. I realized that a small victory can be a victory as well, and that people can move towards vegetarianism in many different ways ... I don’t think that the point of vegetarianism is to score points by following as many rules as possible; the point is for each person to do what he or she can to eat in an ethical, environmentally sustainable, and socially responsible manner.”

When she was just becoming a teenager, Rachel insisted that all of the food at her bat mitzvah must be vegetarian. During her speech, she stood in front of a synagogue full of people—many of whom had never thought much about environmentalism, social justice, or vegetarianism before—and connected vegetarianism to the religious texts and traditions.

Rachel is co-president of Student Action for Justice and Education, a club that focuses on combating hunger, food insecurity, and obesity, and she is president of her school’s Environmental Action Club (EAC). The EAC worked in collaboration with the Brookline Green Team, a group of teachers, administrators, and other adults dedicated to environmental issues, to implement Meatless Mondays in all Brookline, MA, school cafeterias.

Rachel says, “The wonderful thing about working for a cause in a team is that everyone’s ideas build off each other and become that much more powerful. In my sophomore year, I helped lead a Brookline High Green Team Day Away (involving teachers, students, and administrators), in which we came up with a detailed plan to make the school more sustainable. The idea of encouraging students to eat less meat, especially through serving more vegetarian food in the cafeteria, was brought up, separately, in the ‘dining and solid waste’ committee as well as in the ‘education and awareness’ committee, which I chaired. Then in my junior year, we got lucky; the town (hired) a new head of food services, who was much more interested in environmental and food justice ... I think my most important role in this whole effort was that of a coordinator/ liaison between the adults and the students. Each had important ideas to offer, but there could be misunderstandings in communication between the two groups.

“The food service developed the menus. Foods added included vegetarian chili, veggie burgers, hummus, baba ganouj, wraps, sesame noodle salad with edamame, vegetarian sushi, baked ziti, and Spanish rice with roasted vegetables. My job (along with the Environmental Action Club) was to do a publicity and awareness-raising campaign. I led the effort to make signs to put around the school and in the cafeteria highlighting Meatless Mondays and the vegetarian options, as well as the benefits of eating vegetarian, and made announcements over the loudspeaker. I also led the planning of assemblies—speaker and movie events for high school students to advocate the benefits of vegetarianism.

“All of the vegetarian options that I listed (and more) are still on the menu ... There is less devotion to the idea of Mondays being the best days for vegetarianism; some weeks, we offer a particularly large variety of vegetarian foods on Mondays, but sometimes we do so on other days.”

Two other activities in which Rachel is involved include organizing annual ‘hunger banquets,’ which teach about allocation of resources, and helping to activate a dilapidated greenhouse at her high school so the students can give away food to low-income families.

One reference stated, “In my 30-year career working with students, rarely have I encountered a student who combines such an intellectual understanding of pressing social issues, commitment to her ideals, and the willingness to follow through on the hard and sometimes mundane work that social change entails.”

Rachel says, “In the past two or three years, I have discovered that leadership is essentially about finding the right balance—between logistical efficiency and democratic decision-making, and between creating a serious work environment and an atmosphere that values humor and relationships. Another key component of leadership is helping others discover their own potential.”

Rachel continues, “I don’t know exactly what I want to be when I ‘grow up’ ... I hope to eventually be able to effect systemic change, which would affect large groups of people. I am passionate about environmental and social justice issues, and if I worked in these fields in the future, I would be able to promote vegetarianism nearly every day.”

To enter next year’s $5,000 scholarship contest for high school seniors, visit www.vrg.org for application details. The application is due Monday, February 20, 2012. Please submit early.

If you would like to fund additional college scholarships, you can go to our donation page at www.vrg.org or send a contribution to The Vegetarian Resource Group, P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203.