A Morgantown High School senior who founded a literacy program for underserved youngsters across West Virginia and the globe has been named to the 2023 class of U.S. Presidential Scholars.
Rania Zuri joins 160 other soon-to-be graduates recognized for their prowess in the classroom and their altruism in the community.
The new class represents all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and U.S. Department of Defense schools abroad.
Rania, who will enroll at Yale this fall, founded a reading group known at the LiTEAary Society, in her junior year at MHS.
Call it a book club — for the bookish.
Members would get together to sip hot tea (hence the wordplay in the society’s name) while doing serious reading.
English major, serious.
English major-graduate seminar, serious.
Forget the pre-movie Harry Potter tomes or all those current teen-angst travails, a la John Green.
Rania’s society took on Voltaire and Dostoevsky — along with Jane Austin, Guy de Maupassant and the other heavy hitters who show that a narrative, and character’s journey through it, can be just as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 18th or 19th.
“The references and some syntax might change,” she said, “but the truths are universal.”
The other universal truth: Having a literary relationship with words can literally change one’s life.
Rania last year expanded the LiTEAary Society’s borders, turning it into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, with a goal of getting books into the hands of young readers who might not have them otherwise.
Young readers between the ages of 3-6, specifically.
That’s why she started with Head Start.
Head Start is the federally funded social enrichment program launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, as part of his War on Poverty initiative.
Nearly 60 years later, however, life continually gets in the way of that war.
There are 55 counties in West Virginia, with a Head Start office in each one. Rania knows that, because she traveled to all 55 last summer, meeting with directors and some families that are recipients of the outreach.
In many of the households she visited, there wasn’t one book to be found — on a shelf or anywhere else.
Through the society, she was able to distribute books in the Mountain State, with a page-turning, global reach that now includes an orphanage in Jerusalem and several locations across rural India.
Along the way, she was interviewed for a big write-up in Forbes magazine, while appearing live in the studios of the Today show in New York City.
She gave a TEDx talk, too.
Rania is enjoying the positive attention, she said — not for her, but for the mission.
“We have a tagline,” she said.
“‘Inspiring Future Bibliophiles, One Book at a Time.’ If you can read, you can learn. Reading inspires critical thinking. You learn about people. You learn about the world.”
And now, she has a second connection with the former president Johnson.
It was a balmy June evening, also in 1964, the year of Head Start, when he ushered the first class of Presidential Scholars in, during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House.
He tasked the high-achievers with a tall order.
“This is your challenge: To give your talents and your time in our land and in all the lands, to cleaning away the blight, to sweeping away the shoddiness, to wiping away the injustices and inequities of the past.”