I spent the last weekend watching 17-year-olds turn strangers into besties, belt out the lyrics to Ice, Ice, Baby, and learn why David Rubenstein decided to buy the Magna Carta. They also happened to be 150 of the brightest high school seniors in America—and our newest class of Coca-Cola Scholars.

Now...why was I there? This year marked my 10 year anniversary as a Coca-Cola Scholar, and I figured the best way to celebrate was to relive my Scholars Weekend, but this time, I would return as an alumni facilitator for the Leadership Development Institute. Read: my job was to inspire, mentor and challenge these newest Scholars during their four days in Atlanta to become better leaders.

<insert plot twist>

But, it was me who left the weekend rejuvenated, motivated and wide-eyed with inspiration. Here’s what my mentees taught me:

Cross your fingers, hope and pray. Then take action.

Some Scholars told stories of hardships: losing friends to suicide, managing illnesses, battling insecurities. But they spent more time telling stories of inspiration: starting a suicide watch program at school, raising awareness and resources for mental health, advocating for diversity in their community. Gracie Ehemann created nonprofit Love thy Enemy to combat self-bullying and Julian Ubriaco conducted research to increase the survival rate of patients with pancreatic cancer. As Scholars like Gracie and Julian shared their stories, it became even more clear—Scholars don’t sit around and hope circumstances change. They take action.

There’s a 99 percent* chance you’re not alone. (*not scientifically proven)

We asked Scholars to anonymously write down “one fear or detracting voice that gets in your way.” We read these out loud—and were surprised at what we heard from this group of accomplished student leaders: “I’m not good enough.” “I’m not smart enough.” “I don’t think I’ll succeed.”

Scholars around the room shared similar fears. And at the end of the exercise, we felt comforted knowing we weren’t the only ones holding ourselves back—and maybe, we shouldn’t be so hesitant to take on a new challenge...or two.

Great strangers make great friends.

Wyatt Pontius, an Eagle Scout from Virginia with a passion for service and the outdoors, recently developed a high-oxygen-producing synthetic leaf. Azim Dharani, a fellow 2016 Scholar from Texas, inspires his community through regular gardening sessions and shares Wyatt’s love for all things naturally green.

Wyatt and Azim met for the first time on Day Two of Scholars Weekend, and by Day Three, they were the best of friends—talking about how they inspired each other and making plans to collaborate on new projects. I loved watching Wyatt and Azim’s friendship bloom, and I can’t wait to see what amazing projects they’ll whip out together next.

Yes, you CAN put 30 people in a photo booth that fits five.

Ultimately, the best part of the weekend was connecting with Scholars—both old and new. We laughed as we watched two 2016 Scholars belt out all the words to Ice, Ice, Baby (keep in mind this song came out in 1990, nine years before most of them were born). We squished 30 people into a photo booth that fits five. We danced the Nae Nae, talked to the wee hours of the morning and fostered connections—some of which will last a lifetime. We encouraged, challenged and inspired each other. And some of the best lessons came from the youngest voices in the room.

So on Sunday afternoon, I packed my bags, made a stop at Atlanta’s Mary Mac’s (a fried chicken must) and boarded my flight back to NYC—full of new memories, friendships and inspiration from my growing Coca-Cola Scholars family.

Ashley Chang
Ashley Chang is a 2006 Coca-Cola Scholar who leads product marketing for the Google Docs family of brands. She also chairs the Asian Google Network, an employee resource group dedicated to professional development and community engagement. Prior to Google, Ashley enjoyed her experiences at NBC, ABC and The Coca-Cola Company (as an intern at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games). Ashley is a California girl exploring the heart of New York City who loves playing volleyball, trying new restaurants and traveling (one more continent to go)! She is currently attempting to learn all the lyrics to Ice, Ice, Baby.

The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation celebrates visionary leaders who are refreshing the world. Through the Coca-Cola Scholars Program, they award 150 college scholarships of $20,000 to socially-conscious and service-minded high school seniors across the nation each year, resulting in a network of over 5,700 program alumni who have become a powerful force for positive change. For more information, visit www.coca‑colascholars.org or contact Lauren O’Brien at laurenobrien@coca‑cola.com.