When Syracuse native and first-year student Tahirah Abdul-Qadir ’26 set a goal to complete the Congressional Award program, she went for the highest achievable level possible: the Congressional Gold Medal.
The requirements are rigorous:
- 400 hours of voluntary public service;
- 200 hours of personal development;
- 200 hours of physical fitness; and
- a five-day, four-night expedition/exploration trip.
It’s an intensive commitment of time and persistence, but Abdul-Qadir was up for the challenge.
“The major factor that drove me to pursue the Congressional Gold Medal is that I felt it truly resonated with my character. As I learned more about the award, it was easy to see the values being promoted,” says Abdul-Qadir.
“Every aspect of the award is a core value myself and my family holds. I often volunteer my time to service initiatives; physical fitness is embedded in my lifestyle; I strive to be a better version of myself every day; and I am constantly traveling, immersing myself in different cultures,” she says. “The actions I took to achieve this award were activities I performed on a daily basis and the Congressional award brings light to the fact that these values are important.”
The Congressional Award, established in 1979, is the United States Congress’ non-partisan, voluntary and non-competitive award for young Americans 24 years of age and younger. In 2022, the program had 4,432 participants, with 1,280 medals earned, including 549 gold medals, a program history record. The impact of the young people who participate in this program is far-reaching with 1.3 million hours of service performed annually.
As a student at the Syracuse Academy of Science High School, Abdul-Qadir was able to take advantage of her school’s Congressional Award and College Readiness program. The mission of the program is to help students working toward the Congressional Award, academic success, college readiness and service build good character to be college-ready and productive citizens. She was the first student from her high school to receive the highest honor from the Congressional Award program.
“When I put my mind to something, I want to be the absolute best at it,” says Abdul-Qadir, when asked what her driving force was behind completing the program. “There are several levels to the Congressional Award; however, my competitive drive is what made me aim for gold. As the Congressional Gold Medal is the highest recognition from the U.S. Congress, I wasn’t settling for anything less.”
Her drive can also be witnessed through her many achievements and involvement in various extracurricular activities, several of which were part of her Congressional Award activities, including the following:
Earning the Congressional Gold Medal
In earning the Congressional Gold Medal, Abdul-Qadir had to commit time to three specific areas: voluntary service, personal development and physical fitness.
In dedicating over 400 hours to voluntary service, she had two main goals. The first was to help individuals and families dealing with food insecurity. Abdul-Qadir spent her Saturdays volunteering with the nonprofit organization We Rise Above The Streets Recovery Outreach Inc., making and distributing meals to the homeless population in the City of Syracuse. Additionally, she worked on other local food drives and raised funds to feed communities in Cambodia.
“Every individual has the right to eat, thus, I see food insecurity as an injustice. According to my faith, when you see an injustice there are three things you can do. You can hate it in your heart, you can speak out against it and you can change it with your hands,” says Abdul-Qadir. “In reflecting on the effects of poverty in developing countries and here in our own backyard, I didn’t like the thought of someone going hungry while I went to sleep with a full stomach. As this feeling grew into hate, I did what I could to learn about food deserts, the effects of malnutrition and food insecurity to make a difference.”
For her second goal, she wanted to assist youth with the development of literacy skills and English language proficiency by volunteering to teach basic math, English language arts, science and social studies. She worked with middle school-aged children and other community members at the nonprofit organization North Side Learning Center. “My favorite part was connecting with the youth and being able to watch and be part of their growth and development. It’s always rewarding to see others excited and genuinely inspired by something you did,” says Abdul-Qadir.
While her initial plan was to donate her own personal books to someone who truly needed them, research led her to a larger project wanting to help rural African communities that lacked resources and had significant barriers on quality education.
“Hearing from African school headmasters that they had no books for the pupils to study and practice their literacy skills broke my heart,” says Abdul-Qadir. She launched an initiative to start libraries and provide books for schools and communities in Ghana and Lesotho. Through her work, she established five libraries, collected more than 6,000 books and raised over $3,000 for shipping and purchasing additional books.
For personal development, Abdul-Qadir dedicated 250 hours with the goal of further developing her leadership and communication skills. She became an instructor at the Excel Martial Arts Training Center, teaching traditional karate and sparring techniques to 5- to 7-year-olds in the Tiny Tigers program. She also assisted with intermediate and advanced level karate and kickboxing classes at the family-owned studio.
In addition, Abdul-Qadir founded a female empowerment organization—Fight Like A Girl—recognized for promoting gender equality through self-defense, global seminars, mentorship, leadership development and conversations on overall mental, physical and emotional health.
Abdul-Qadir has been involved with kickboxing since the age of 4 so when it was time to complete the physical fitness piece of this program it was only natural for her to dedicate over 400 hours to improving her endurance and strength to compete in an international kickboxing competition. Because of her hard work and dedication, Abdul-Qadir qualified for Team USA and represented the United States at the 2021 WAKO Pan American Kickboxing Championships, winning first place in her division and bringing home the gold.
Finally, to fulfill the last requirement, Abdul-Qadir went on an exploration trip to Istanbul and Antalya, Turkey, with the goal of immersing herself into a culture by trying new cuisine, visiting historic sights and practicing using the Turkish language, which she had studied for three years.
While there, her father participated in the WAKO Kickboxing World Championship tournament, where she was able to communicate with delegates from the Turkish team and assisted Team USA with translations while touring the city.
The Future Is Bright
As a dual major in biology and entrepreneurship in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Whitman School, Abdul-Qadir has her sights set on a leadership role one day, with the desire to complete a Ph.D. and contribute to research at the intersection of business and scientific discovery.
Currently, she is on Team USA for the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations, which is now recognized by the International Olympic Committee. She hopes to participate in the Olympics one day if and when kickboxing is featured in the Olympic games.