Aspiring and Inspiring Music Student Wins 2023 Niebuhr Service to Society Contest

March 20, 2023 | by the Office of Marketing and Communications

Aidan Pelletier, who found innovative ways to share the gift of music with his church and its youngest members, is the first-place winner of the 2023 Niebuhr Service to Society Scholarship Competition.

During the awards ceremony held earlier this month, Pelletier, a senior at Grayslake Central High School in Grayslake, Ill., was awarded a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to attend Elmhurst University.

The second-place winner is Elizabeth Vazquez, a senior at Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy in Forest Park, who was awarded a $10,000 renewable scholarship to attend Elmhurst.

This year, a record 214 students entered the Niebuhr Service to Society Scholarship Competition, which celebrates students with a passion for service to their communities and the world. The participants, all admitted Elmhurst students, come from across the Midwest and as far west as Colorado; and globally, from Mexico, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Kenya and Kyrgyzstan.

In the first round of the competition, applicants were asked to submit a video about the ways in which they contribute to positive change in their community. The second round was held on March 4 on campus, and included group projects and the awards ceremony. It was the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that the competition and awards ceremony were held in person, although the event also was livestreamed so that out-of-state and international students could participate.

­­­In his video, Pelletier described growing up in his church, La Inglesia, in Mundelein, Ill. As a little boy, he took music lessons there that changed his life. As he got older, he paid it forward by playing piano during church services and giving free music lessons to other kids in the church who couldn’t afford them otherwise.

After four years of teaching, and giving more than 500 hours of lessons, he organized some of his students into a worship band. Then the pandemic hit “and forced us to cancel everything,” he said.

Refusing to watch the band’s progress deteriorate, Pelletier moved his lessons online and worked creatively to keep them engaging. Enough kids stuck with it to allow the band to resume a year later. The experience “has transformed me and my students,” said Pelletier, who plans to study music business at Elmhurst.

“Every time he plays, he inspires me,” said his pastor, Homero Garcia. “Aidan has blessed me, my family, our church and our entire community, and I really believe he can also bless and impact your college in a very positive way too.”

In her video, second-place winner Elizabeth Vazquez, of Hillside, Ill., said her uncle taught her that “her social justice isn’t left to chance; it’s what we decide to make of it.” So with his help, she turned his tire shop in Mexico into a charitable organization that helps impoverished people get back on their feet, and also works with children who have limited access to education.

Winners of the virtual group service project, which took place on March 4, include:

  • Angelina Calvillo, from Chicago, Ill.
  • Nathan Devitt, from Bloomingdale, Ill.
  • Emily Fanella, from Elk Grove Village, Ill.
  • Stephanie Figueroa, from Darien, Ill.
  • Gabrielle Fisher, from Round Lake Beach, Ill.
  • Sofija Galanto, from Skokie, Ill.

Each member received a $3,000 Niebuhr Service to Society Group Award. All students who entered the competition and attended the scholarship event received a $1,000 Niebuhr Grant, which can be added to previously awarded merit scholarships and/or grants.

Elmhurst University launched the Niebuhr Service to Society Scholarship Competition in 2019 to recognize and reward prospective Elmhurst students with a significant interest in service, both as an element of their college search and in their wider ambitions.

The Niebuhr Service to Society Scholarship Competition is named for theologians Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, two of Elmhurst University’s most esteemed alumni. The Niebuhrs’ commitment to scholarship, service and social justice informs the University’s mission, and Elmhurst seeks students motivated to transform their communities in line with the Niebuhr brothers’ teachings.

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