Principal's Leadership Award Winner Profiles

Have you ever wondered what it takes to win a Principal's Leadership Award (PLA) scholarship? Many people have.

To help answer this question, we have provided below a list of links to profiles of previous PLA winners featured in Leadership for Student Activities magazine over the past several years.

We provide these profiles to assist principals, advisers, and students in better understanding the caliber of student required to win one of these prestigious national scholarships. Additional profiles will be included in the upcoming October and December editions of the magazine. The PLA program is sponsored by Herff Jones, Inc. ( and administered by NASSP.

Additional information about the PLA scholarship programs can be found at

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October 2009:
Sejal Hathi, Notre Dame HS
San Jose, CA
National Winner 2009

Last spring, NASSP and Herff Jones, Inc. were proud to announce the National Winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award (PLA). Selected from among the many senior nominees submitted by high school principals around the nation, one winner was selected as the outstanding example of student leadership for the year. We are pleased to provide you with the following profile of our National PLA Winner, Sejal Hathi from Notre Dame High School in San Jose, CA.

“Sejal is the most outstanding young leader of my 24-year career. She is a young leader prodigy who already stands out on the national scene.” So begins the recommendation for Sejal Hathi as written by her principal, Mary Beth Riley of Notre Dame HS. Ranking near the top of her 100-student graduating class, and scoring near perfect scores on her SAT, Sejal met all of the benchmarks for the high school program of academic classes and standardized tests by the end of her sophomore year, and thus focused her efforts on service to complete her high school career.

While dance, and student council, and the literary magazine may have all benefited from her contributions, it was her work in starting or leading several international non-profit organizations that propelled Sejal into the spotlight. Most notably, Girls Helping Girls ( was established in 2007 with a mission to empower all girls to transform their world by mobilizing them to engage in cultural exchange, gain a global education, and create and lead social change. They work to nurture, cultivate, and inspire a new generation of grassroots global leaders who will continue to pioneer and innovate change into the future.

Her passion and her work did not go unnoticed. Sejal was one of CNN’s Young People Who Rock. She won a Discover Card Tribute Scholarship, a Global Teen Leaders Award, the President’s Call to Service Award, was identified as an Elle Girl Teen Hero and a Think MTV/Taco Bell Foundation Teen Hero Award. She also served on the national youth council of Youth Service America ( In the midst of this she earned a National Merit Semifinalist’s designation, served as editor-in-chief of her city’s Youth Today newspaper, participated in speech and debate, and was a member of the math team at her school. She worked as an intern and researcher at the Stanford Institutes of Medical Research and also found time to write many articles and several books about her passions.

This was not typical high school career by any means, but the impact of the work of this student leader is impressive. Her principal notes in conclusion to her recommendation, “Best of all, it doesn’t end here. Sejal will continue her outreach as her life work combining study in medicine with public and social policy.”

We invite you to visit to read the narrative written by Sejal included in her application. It conveys a powerful message and will convince you that the selection of Sejal Hathi as the national winner for PLA in 2009 was, when all is said and done, actually quite an easy decision to make.


October 2008:
William (Billy) Gifford, Kempner HS
Sugar Land,Texas
National Winner 2008

Last spring (2008), NASSP and Herff Jones were proud to announce the first National Winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award (PLA). Selected from among the many senior nominees submitted by high school principals around the nation, one winner was selected as the outstanding example of student leadership for the year. We are pleased to provide you with the following profile of our National PLA Winner, William Gifford from Kempner High School in Sugar Land, Texas.

William (Billy) Gifford comes from a very large school located in the southwestern suburbs of Houston. According to Principal James May, the school has one of the most diverse student populations in the greater Houston area – 31% white, 29% Asian, 24% Hispanic, and 16% African-American. This combined with a very heterogeneous socio-economic structure could be problematic to a new student council president, but with conviction, determination, and a sense of humor Billy was elected by his peers who clearly valued his agenda of mutual respect and high expectations for the school.

To be selected as a PLA winner requires clear demonstration of leadership at school or in the community. Sometimes that comes by sacrificing time that other students commit to strengthening their academic performance. Billy may not have been his class valedictorian, but he was clearly an outstanding student whose course load was challenging and whose grades put him among the top of his class.

It is the breadth and intensity of his leadership experiences that defines Billy most completely. In student council he was first vice-president then president at the school. In addition, he was elected as president of TASC, the Texas Association of Student Councils one of the nation’s oldest, largest, and most-respected state organizations. He served three years as president of the school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

In the community he served on the mayor’s youth advisory council and participated in the “Youth in Philanthropy” organization. He was also selected to participate in the prestigious US Senate Youth Program.

In sports, Billy was captain of the football team and the soccer team. He earned an MVP as offensive wide receiver his senior year. He also earned a Black Belt in Karate, a sport which he also taught as a part-time job.

Billy’s leadership engaged him in service throughout high school. He logged more than 1,000 hours of service through student council over three years. He participated in service projects with his NHS chapter, and while a delegate at the NASC National Conference in Kansas City in 2007 participated as a helper with Special Olympics. He also logged hours in the school’s peer assistance network and participated in a local Alzheimer’s Memory Walk.

The PLA nominees were asked to reflect on the leadership traits they valued in teachers as part of the 2007 nomination form. Billy presented a well-crafted and expressive narrative that included the following core paragraph: “What leadership qualities does a teacher possess that has such a great impact on a student’s education? It’s not imparting A’s or B’s. It’s the C’s that matter most: Compassion, Communication, and Commitment. Compassion for a student’s well being, the ability to communicate a message, and an undying commitment to impart knowledge.”

Billy Gifford was an engaged student leader – active in the classroom, in activities, in athletics and in the community. For his outstanding performance, we are proud to recognize him as the National Winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award program for 2008.


December 2008:
Sehar Sabir, Paint Branch HS,
Burtonsville, Maryland

In her PLA narrative assignment last year, Sehar Sabir quoted Dr. Theodore Hesburgh when he said, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” While Sehar may have used this quotation to refer to the role and attitudes that make for successful leaders in education, the words define her role at school and the community and what led to her selection as one of the eight regional winners of the PLA Scholarship for 2008.

Sehar had an influential career at Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County, Maryland. Her strong GPA and well-above-average standardized testing scores led to her being listed in the top 3% of her graduating class of 413, but they don’t tell the complete story of her leadership.

Clearly, academics have been a strong point for Sehar. She was a member of the Math and Spanish Honor Societies at her school. She was awarded the AP Scholar with Distinction, Presidential Academic Excellence, and Maryland Distinguished Scholar awards. Her skills in academics carry over into her choices for service at school and in the community. She has been an assistant teacher at the local Islamic School for three years and tutored elementary and middle level students for the last two years.

In addition to these service activities, Sehar has coordinated blood drives at the school and coordinated support activities for the local soup kitchen for three years in a row. Her service activities came through her membership in NHS as well as through Key Club.

However, the PLA program recognizes outstanding student leaders, and Sehar has demonstrated her leadership in a variety of areas. She served as class president her sophomore year, but rose to serve her student council first as vice president and then as president during her senior year. In student council, Sehar kept her school involved in both the county and state-level activities to support student leaders and also coordinated the Homecoming committee for two years.

One of Sehar’s leadership roles combined events at school and in her community. She was president of the Muslim Student Association her junior year where her principal, Jeanette Dixon, noted Sehar’s personal goal to “raise Islamic awareness within the high school and to strengthen the Muslim identity in our very diverse school.” In addition to the tutoring noted above, she also participated in the local Islamic Information Center and assisted with the production of their magazine – a task made easier thanks to her also having served as assistant editor on the school’s newspaper.

Sehar was chosen to be a page in the Maryland House of Delegates, an honor for any student in the state. Locally, she was profiled on the school system’s public access programming when she was interviewed by the superintendent as an example of an outstanding student in the system.

Sehar has noted a desire to major in journalism and take up a career in public service. One can see that her experience as a student leader in school and the community during her high school years have prepared Sehar Sabir well for a most successful future.


October 2007
Adam Gross, Marlboro HS
Marlboro, NJ

Being rated number one in a class of 550 students requires a lot of effort. That’s what Adam Gross learned as a student at Marlboro High School in New Jersey. It is also one of the factors that led to Adam being selected as a 2007 recipient of the Principal’s Leadership Award sponsored by Herff Jones, Inc.

Marlboro is about an hour east of the state capital, located in central New Jersey. The school is a large suburban school with a high percentage of college-bound students. An NHS chapter has been at the school since 1970 and they are also currently active members of the National Association of Student Councils (NASC). Adam served in both organizations, having been elected as Vice President of NHS for 2 years and serving as a homeroom representative in student council for 2 years also.

Adam’s leadership was not limited to his being the top student in his class. In his essay, he notes that determination and the ability to focus were two leadership qualities that helped make him a successful student in high school. He exhibited determination when working to identify a new debate team adviser at the school, asking virtually every faculty member on campus to work with their award-winning club. He demonstrated his ability to focus and to keep others focused on their goals when working on a variety of group projects and activities during his high school career. These skills helped him earn the respect of his peers and the staff at the school.

Marlboro’s principal, James Mullevey, described Adam as energetic, motivated, determined, responsible, articulate, and caring. He notes that Adam was the driving force behind many groups on campus. In addition to being vice-president of his NHS chapter, he participated in the chapter’s service activities during the year. As president of the Forensics Club, he earned state honors. In FBLA, he competed successfully in state and national competitions and served as chapter vice-president his junior year.

Adam also participated in the school’s Science League, Math League, and was a member of the Fencing Club. He earned membership in the Spanish Honor Society and was the recipient of the 2006 New Jersey Governor’s Award.

As a student leader, Adam also participated in service activities including projects for the Tuberous Sclerosis Foundation and the Breast Cancer Walks. In addition, he worked as a tutor in the community and was a member of the Amnesty International group on campus.

Adam Gross made a difference at his school and in his community. His principal concluded his recommendation by indicating that Adam gives 100% of himself toward his personal goals, but was always willing to give so that other students could succeed at Marlboro HS. He described the essence of leadership as leading by example, inspiring others, working hard, and trying to accomplish the task at hand. It appears that he was successful in all of these areas.

Congratulations to Adam Gross, a 2007 winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award.


December 2007
Abby Steverson, Smiths Station HS,
Smiths Station, Alabama

“The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.” A quote from Woodrow Wilson, this testament holds true for all effective leaders. The art of listening must be present for any group to work successfully towards a common goal. I believe that my listening skills have allowed me to be a productive and efficient leader.

Being a listener has enabled me to be extremely open-minded. When in a leadership position, I am sure to listen to everyone’s perspective. Each person participating in a group discussion has a voice; all opinions are shared and taken seriously. Through the method of brainstorming and considering all positive feedback, I have been astonished by the culmination of our efforts.

Listening to others has allowed me to maximize group participation and production. Open-mindedness, lack of pre-judgment, and a commitment to find multiple solutions have enabled me to be a capable leader. Time and again, I am surprised by the brilliance of group members who, when given the opportunity, produce outstanding ideas and suggestions.

These excerpts from Abby Steverson, a 2007 winner of the Principals’ Leadership Award, not only have an important message but indicate the quality of the leadership which she possesses.

Abby graduated last spring from Smiths Station High School, a large, predominantly rural high school in east-central Alabama. Her student leadership roles were many and varied throughout her high school career. She was class president her junior year and served as NHS vice-president as a senior. She was the president of the Rotary Youth Club on campus and president of FBLA as a junior.

When not serving as an elected officer, Abby participated in a variety of other student organizations at school and in the community. These included peer tutoring, Spanish club, the Society of Physics, the Counselor’s Advisory Committee, Art Club and SADD on campus, along with the Children’s Policy Council, Young Life, and church choir as roles in the community.

Abby’s leadership roles continued in her work as cheerleader for SSHS. She earned varsity letters throughout high school in cheerleading and was captain of her squad her senior year. In cheerleading, she and her squad earned several national champion awards and Abby was identified as a cheerleading All-American by the National Cheerleading Association.

In addition to her awards in cheerleading, Abby earned recognition for art and science and was a two-time state finalist for FBLA in Economics. She was selected as the Miss Alabama Outstanding Teen 2006 and her peers voted her Homecoming Queen as a senior.

Service is an important part of Abby’s life as well. She participated in Relay for Life (American Cancer Society fundraising) for three years, and helped with her county’s evacuation center and child advocacy center, most actively during her junior year. She also created “Abby’s Art for Autism” during her junior and senior years.

Her principal, Kathie Ledbetter, noted in her recommendation that, “Abby leads by example and people notice.” No doubt her leadership and commitment to others, including her good listening skills were the key reasons for her selection as a 2007 PLA winner.


October 2006
Devon Neary, Fair Haven Union HS
Fair Haven, Vermont

Fair Haven Union High School is located in western Vermont, just a few miles from the border with New York in Rutland County, roughly equidistant from the state capitals of Albany and Montpelier. The class of 2006 graduated last spring from this rural school with 137 students, one of whom was a 2006 finalist in the Principal’s Leadership Award program sponsored by Herff Jones, Inc. His name: Devon Neary.

Devon ended his high school career in the top 5 percent of his class having earned an overall ‘A’ average in his studies. His performance on standardized tests was well above average with his strongest showing in math and science.

His two most prominent leadership positions were being president of the student council and vice president of National Honor Society. In addition, he served as a sports team captain three times (during grades 10-12), having lettered in four sports: cross country, indoor track, basketball, and baseball; and helped lead the school’s track team to a state championship.

Devon was active in the music department throughout high school. He played in the band and jazz band, and sang in the chorus and the school’s a capella group. During his high school career, Devon earned recognition by being selected to show at the Vermont State Science Fair and to represent FHUHS at Boys’ State. In addition, he was one of the state representatives to the Hugh O’Brian Youth World Leadership Conference in Washington, DC in 2004.

As a youth leader, Devon also displayed an interest in service. He was active in the community volunteer fire and rescue teams, and participated regularly in the school’s Community Service Club.

The principal of FHUHS, Felice Clauder, comments on Devon’s leadership in her recommendation. “One of his major achievements has been establishing the school’s new peer mediation program. Due to his direct involvement, the school has seen an increase in safety and positivity and a decrease in bullying and social aggression.” The student handbook for Fair Haven Union HS indicates that students at their school will “Develop, explain, and apply an organized process for problem solving” – it appears that Devon not only helped solve a school problem, but had the skills to teach others to resolve their own problems as well.

The handbook also indicates that FHUHS students will, “Demonstrate personal and social responsibility by contributing to a safe and well-disciplined academic environment.” In addition to the peer mediation group, Devon, according to his principal, was “active in providing student council a voice for change. He has been involved with various initiatives to make the school more conducive to student needs such as improving the school lunch program.”

It is clear that the school succeeded in accomplishing its mission where Devon Neary was concerned. From his active, well-rounded, and concerned career, it is quite clear why Devon succeeded in winning one of the 2006 Principal’s Leadership Awards. Congratulations for this well-deserved honor.


December 2006
Cortney Thoren, Lander Valley HS,
Lander, Wyoming

Lander Valley High School is a medium sized public school that has an average number of students enrolled in college preparatory classes. Among the student leaders who emerged at the top of the Class of 2006 was Cortney Thoren.

Cortney was a leader in her school. She served as student council and class president for three years. She was an officer in FFA. In athletics she was captain for volleyball, basketball, and soccer. She wrote about student leadership in her essay on the preparation for the future that her high school education has provided:

“A student leader must take risks, take charge, and have the desire and willingness to make an impact. Without taking risks and being passionate about what you’re doing, it is almost impossible to create change. I desire to be an agent of change in my life, to be self-motivated and fervent about my undertakings so they fulfill their greatest potential. Seeing the change one person can create is rewarding because it gives a great feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment, knowing that one individual can make a difference. Being ambitious and driven to achieve must come from within.”

But Cortney apparently also recognized the importance of service in making a difference in her school and community. Throughout high school, she participated in the community’s Relay for Life program, helped build a playground at a city park, taught Sunday school at her church, and participated in the school’s annual blood drive.

For her commitment to service, and her leadership, character, and strong academics, she was selected as a member of the National Honor Society at her school. She was also a finalist in the Wendy’s High School Heisman competition selected to many all-star and all-conference teams in sports, appeared on the 4.0 honor roll, received the Outstanding Junior Science Award, and won many awards through FFA.

With all this involvement in addition to her strong academic record, Cortney also found time to work at a local preschool and with a local consulting company.

Cortney’s principal, Shaun D. Nicklas addresses several aspects of character in his recommendation for the PLA awards: “She [Cortney] models what I would consider to be exemplary sportsmanship. She plays with great intensity while treating coaches, officials, and opponents with the utmost respect. She is one of the only high school athletes I can recall who would go out of her way to visit with me personally after a match. She does an excellent job representing her fellow student and peers as president of our student council. She understands that she not only represents her friends but also represents the entire student population. As a leader she is assertive and persistent. She explores various options and understands that decision-making involves many considerations.”

We congratulate Cortney Thoren for her leadership at Lander Valley HS and for winning the 2006 PLA scholarship.


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