Olivia Browndorf knew something was afoot at the New Jersey Association of Student Councils convention earlier this year.
Browndorf had her suspicions when her fellow High School North student council members kept sneaking glances at her. She put the pieces together when her advisor started recording the ceremony that preceded this year’s Student Leaders of the Year awards, which honor a student leader who has demonstrated exemplary leadership and service to both their school and community.
By the time her name was announced, Browndorf admits that she, “freaked out at the moment.”
“The Student Leader of the Year award was a total surprise to me,” the high school senior says. “My best friend Rohan Patel is on the state student council, so he heard of the award through running the council for the past year. My whole council knew what was going on at the meeting in January, but I didn’t. And then Rohan actually presented me the award at the meeting in January.”
It was a fitting full-circle moment, as Browndorf says that Patel is how she got involved in her high school’s student council in the first place.
“He called me right before freshman year started and asked if I wanted to be on the student council,” Browndorf said. “I basically became a volunteer for our council, where I just helped out with all the events and the planning where I could and when they needed.”
Patel was among those who coordinated their efforts to submit Browndorf as a nominee for the statewide Student Leader of the Award.
“Never have I met a student with so much charisma, enthusiasm and genuine dedication to make a positive impact,” the student body president said of his longtime friend and peer. “Olivia is one of the most inspiring leaders in our school, striving to make a significant impact on any project she takes under her wing.”
North principal Jonathan Dauber agreed. “Olivia is one of the finest students I have come across in any capacity during my 22 years in education. She is a leader and role model, respected and appreciated by all students in our school… she is committed to her beliefs and willing to fight for those beliefs by advocating for herself and others.”
While she was involved in student council all four years of high school, she didn’t hold a board position until becoming the special assignments officer for the sophomore class—and then made the leap to the entire council’s executive board as a junior.
“The executive board is a six-person board that kind of runs the rest of council, overseeing the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior councils,” Browndorf said. “I became treasurer junior year, and this year I’m the secretary.”
She credits her mother’s own fondly recalled days on student council as being the inspiration behind wanting to enjoy that perspective, too—though it was an inauspicious introduction to student government in middle school that sparked her determination to run full-tilt at it once she got to high school.
“My mom had always spoken so highly about student council, so I was very interested in it in middle school and ran my eighth-grade year,” Brownsdorf said. “But then I didn’t get elected. That’s what really got me into doing it my freshman year.”
And it’s that determination that opened the doors to the opportunities that student council has given Browndorf, while also being a first-hand lesson in how much of a difference just one person can make.
“What really stands out to me about student council is the impact you can have on so many things in our school and how many things you really can change just by being a voice for your grade as well as a voice for the entire student body,” she said.
She added that her four years of student council involvement have also taught her important life skills before she even ventures into the world beyond high school.
“Student council has made me meet people I probably never would have met in my high school experience,” Browndorf said. “I made so many relationships with teachers and administrators, and I think things like learning how to interact with people and meeting all kinds of new people are going to help me in the long run.”
Browndorf also attributes being involved in extracurricular activities beyond student council—like Peer Leaders, a “20-person group who guide freshmen throughout their first year”—as well as the joy she gets from volunteer work as teaching her how to both be a leader and advocate for others.
As a former athlete whose pursuits included field hockey, basketball, track and field and lacrosse, Browndorf has shared her love of organized sports with the all-volunteer nonprofit group Princeton Special Sports for years, and now serves as a coach for the organization.
“I’m really into special education and working with special-needs kids,” she says. “I’ve been a part of Princeton Special Sports since seventh grade. Every Sunday, we play sports with the kids—fall is soccer, winter is basketball, spring is baseball—and then as well as one Friday each month, we have a dance where we can give them the life that they deserved to have in high school and middle school but they kind of missed out on because the way of how the system works. I’ve really embraced that and taken a leadership role there.”
In fact, her years of volunteer work made such an impact that when Browndorf heads off to college (or taking classes online if the school remains closed due to COVID-19) in the fall to begin her next chapter at Syracuse University, she’ll be arriving as an education major with a focus on early childhood special education.
“Princeton Special Sports is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and I’ll be studying special education next year in college because of it,” she said. “It’s completely changed my world. Just seeing their reactions to what we feel are the simplest acts for us, the things that don’t even stand out to us, just make them feel like the most special kids alive. It’s taught me how much impact one little thing can have on so many other people.”
Browndorf said that where she sees herself in the future “basically changes every day,” but she is certain that her experiences with both volunteer work and student council have helped identify the path she wants to take—which she thinks will involve picking up a political science minor as she settles into college life.
“I am more and more interested in advocating for education in a more political sense,” she said. “I like the idea of teaching and I love children, and the student council has made me really love advocating for others, which is why I want a poli-sci minor. I hope in five years I’ll be getting my masters, then hopefully getting an advocacy job in D.C.”
Browndorf said she believes that high school is filled with opportunities to learn about yourself and what you want from life, and she advises younger students to not let a stumble or two to dissuade them from reaching for what they want.
“I lost two elections before I actually became a real member of our student council—that set me back, in a way, but I never stopped fighting to be on my student council,” Browndorf said. “That’s where I got my special assignments officer position: My council saw that I really wanted to be a part of it. I think the biggest thing is to always believe in yourself and believe that you will succeed.”