Four-hundred hours of community service, 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness, four nights and five days of exploration — it takes a lot of time and commitment to receive a Gold Congressional Medal award.
In addition to the 900-plus hours of activities, each hour must be meticulously logged, validated by a sponsor and then approved by an adviser, before finally being submitted to Washington D.C. It’s not the kind of thing most teenagers want to spend their time doing.
But Josie Amoo is not most teenagers.
Amoo was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in February. While COVID-19 precautions pushed the award ceremony scheduled for Sept. 26 online, it did little to dampen Amoo’s ambitions. If anything, the ongoing pandemic coupled with a nationwide reckoning with racism and global climate crises has set Amoo on a path toward greatness.
“I’m just really the type of person who wants to be involved in really complicated work,” Amoo told the Star-Herald in a recent interview.
Amoo began the three-year process required for the award at 14. She said the award popped up on her radar because her mother Judy Amoo knew another gold medalist, Ethan Nelson of Dalton. Amoo and Nelson are the only western Nebraskans to receive the award over the last 10 years, according to a Congressional Award list obtained by the Star-Herald.
“(Nelson) talked about this award like ‘It’s a really big responsibility, but you will get a lot out of it,’” Amoo said. “We really got interested in it, but until that point, I’d never heard about it.”
Initially, Amoo wanted to win the medal because she figured it would boost the curb appeal of her college applications. Amoo is gunning for Stanford University; one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S.
Stanford is also the hardest university in the U.S. to get into. According to U.S. News and World Report, Stanford accepted just 4% of applicants in 2019 — a lower rate than eastern rivals Harvard and Yale. But getting the award would be no walk in the park.
In addition to the hours and hours of community service, Amoo also had to plan and execute a five-day and four-night expedition. That opportunity arose when Amoo was 16 and her mother had to travel to Washington.
Amoo chose to travel to Port Townsend, a small community 56 miles north of Seattle. She said she learned about the indigenous culture in northern Washington and the significance of the area during World War II.
“I remember how fun it was to feel independent for the first time,” Amoo said.
The expedition involved booking her flights, to deciding where she’d eat and figuring out transportation from place to place.
“It wasn’t a chore to plan all those logistics. It was actually kind of fun and freeing,” Amoo said.
While she did share a room with her mom, Amoo was independently exploring for the rest of the 120-hour trip. She chose to bike the area instead of driving it because she wanted to traverse the natural environment as well.
“There was a lot of trial and error,” Amoo said. “My bike broke on the first day. That was kind of frustrating.”
Frustrating but not debilitating, Amoo said, adding that it was all a part of the challenge.
While Amoo’s exploration of northern Washington had to be done alone, she had several mentors and helpers along the way, including her adviser Howard Olsen.
“It was an honor to have been asked,” Olsen said.
Olsen is one of the founders of the local law firm Simmons Olsen Law Firm. Olsen said he initially felt his job was to keep Amoo on task.
“She is an incredible self-starter, so I didn’t have to do that at all,” Olsen said.
Olsen said his role adjusted when Amoo was submitting the 5-inch binder required to prove to the Congressional Award group all the requirements have been met. He said the amount of work Amoo had to complete was enormous.
“It takes, in my mind, a maturity level not usually found in a student her age,” Olsen said. “It’s one of those things that will follow her for the rest of her life.”
Amoo’s desire to achieve the award may have begun as a quest to collect accolades and as a journey of personal growth, the national and global events of the past three years shifted her mindset to something more service-oriented.
Amoo said her family has strong roots in Scottsbluff, so the pull of community service was ubiquitous even before winning the medal. But a lot has changed in the three years since Amoo started her journey. As such, she told the Star-Herald that she sees her future in public service.
“I hope to, someday, be moving from California to work in Washington D.C., and really take charge of the fight of my generation, which would be climate change,” Amoo said.
It’s impossible to separate Amoo from the history she’s growing up in.
She’s living through one the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history. That’s because Amoo — along with all members of her generation — live in a world blanketed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a national reckoning of U.S. racism and global climate shift.
“We didn’t choose to be born right now, we didn’t choose to have COVID-19 and climate change and racial injustice and all this going on in an election year — but we have to do it and we have to help each other out,” she said.
Any of these events on their own would define a generation, but they all underlay Amoo’s experience as a teenager.
“There are so many ways of making change,” Amoo said. “You might not be able to volunteer in person, but there’s plenty you can do from behind a computer.
“You just have to get up and do it, and not be afraid to just say whatever you can wherever you are.”
Those aren’t just words.
Over the summer, shortly after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, Amoo and other students told the Scottsbluff Public Schools Board of Education that district leaders needed to do more to address systemic racism in their buildings.
The school board responded by issuing a “Declaration of Commitment to Equitable Treatment and Opportunity for All Students” and continues to discuss issues of race and diversity as recently as the September school board meeting.
“It’s more of an overarching journey for all of us — but finding your place within that chaos is a lot easier than you’d think,” Amoo said.
She said she can imagine herself running for office, or working as a diplomat or writing policy. But that’s still a ways off.
If Stanford is the goal, the University of California school system is the fallback. She said she’d always been drawn to the west coast and wants “to be around everything,” as she put it.
“I wouldn’t be surprised or shocked at all if Josie (Amoo) ended up in public service,” Olsen said. “I think she has a lot to offer regardless of what she does.”
Josie Amoo wanted to thank several people for helping her along her way including her adviser Howard Olsen, and mentors and facilitators Gary Largo, Ally Bergren, Dave Hoxworth, Stephanie Cooley and Leslie Foral.