Going Places: Voyager Scholarship Takes Future Leader to the Next Level

An Obama Foundation Voyager Scholar winner stands in front of the forestry building where she studies wildlife ecology, on the campus of Michigan Technological University
An Obama Foundation Voyager Scholar winner stands in front of the forestry building where she studies wildlife ecology, on the campus of Michigan Technological University
Quinn Riordan is jump-starting her public service career with a scholarship designed to shape tomorrow’s leaders.
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Given the amount of hours Michigan Tech Huskies devote to research, it’s not too surprising that Quinn Riordan was in a lab when she received some of the biggest news of her life.

In July, Riordan briefly stepped away from entering data and organizing gear as part of a summer research opportunity at the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center to check her email. Results for the 2023-24 selection of the Obama-Chesky Voyager Scholarship for Public Service were expected soon. 

“All of July, I was checking my email more often than usual,” Riordan said. “Although I never really thought I’d get it.” 

But she did. Riordan, a junior majoring in applied ecology and environmental science at Michigan Technological University, is one of 100 students chosen nationwide for the Voyager Scholarship’s second cohort. She joins students from 33 states and territories representing 75 colleges and universities.

National scholarship winner Quinn Riordan in Horner Hall in Michigan Tech's College of Forest Resources and Environmental Sciences
Riordan, whose favorite place on campus is Michigan Tech's College of Forest Resources and Environmental Sciences, used her lived experiences to help her decide on a course of study and a career path.

As a scholarship winner, she’ll receive up to $25,000 per year in last-dollar financial aid for her junior and senior years, covering Riordan's remaining tuition after other federal, state or institutional aid is applied. The scholarship also includes a $10,000 stipend and free Airbnb housing to fund a six-week Summer Voyage between her junior and senior year. Riordan will work with mentors to design a work-travel experience that exposes her to new communities and helps her gain experience in her chosen field. She’ll also take part in an ongoing speaker series and attend an annual fall summit to network with fellow Voyagers. 

In addition, the scholarship includes a 10-year travel stipend of $2,000 per year in Airbnb travel credits after Riordan graduates, ensuring she’s able to continue growing and making connections as she pursues her career in public service. After graduation, Riordan will also become a member of the Obama Foundation’s global community, with access to continued resources and programs to help her develop and sustain her potential as a leader.

Riordan was elated to discover she’d been chosen for the scholarship, and didn’t keep the news to herself for long. Her first call was to family. “They had been rooting for me,” she said. “And family was how I found out about the scholarship in the first place.”

Obama Foundation scholarship winner Quinn Riordan doing fieldwork last summer.
Riordan doing fieldwork last summer. (Image courtesy Quinn Riordan)

Riordan said her family has always promoted her interest in the outdoors. That’s what led her to Michigan Tech. “I have an outdoorsy family. I was always in the water, always outside,” she said. In addition to canoe trips and visits to national parks, Riordan participated in outdoors programs for students in her Minneapolis hometown, many specifically designed to provide members of historically underserved communities with access and opportunities in the outdoors. She also participated in pre-college programs that helped her decide on a career focus.

“I found out about Tech through the Youth Conservation Corps,” she said. “When I was out on Isle Royale, I met Rolf Peterson (co-leader of the Isle Royale wolf-moose study). He actually grew up down the street from where I live in Minneapolis. He told me what he does at Tech, about Fall Camp and all the amazing projects here,” she said. 

A young researcher stands by the Isle Royale Windigo sign surrouned by moose antlers and holding one up to her head. She's national scholarship winner Quinn Riordan. The Obama-Cheskey Voyager Scholar goes to school at Michigan Tech — and learned about the college when she met researcher Rolf Peterson at Isle Royale.
Riordan's introduction to Michigan Tech came from a summer experience at Isle Royale National Park, where she met Isle Royale wolf-moose study co-leader Rolf Peterson. (Image courtesy Quinn Riordan)

Riordan followed up with a tour of campus and Michigan Tech’s College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. “I could see myself here. It just made sense to go into ecology.”

Her experience since she arrived at Tech has only made her more certain about a career path. “I took veg (North American Vegetation) and said, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life!’”

Deciding on a public service career was also an obvious choice. Looking back over her experiences, Riordan realized that’s what she’s been doing all along. “All of my work experience has been based around public service,” she said. Riordan has worked in or with national parks the last two years, including a fellowship with Mississippi Park Connection and the Youth Conservation Corps

As she begins to design her Summer Voyage, Riordan is exploring a focus on accessibility and inclusivity in agriculture and conservation for underserved minority communities and voices. In addition to addressing issues of food access and food diversity, she’s also interested in creating more accessibility to outdoor spaces. “The programs I participated in with and for the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) community made a strong impression on me,” she said, mentioning a Boundary Waters program for students in her city, mainly people of color, who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to experience that environment. Riordan wants others to experience the positive impacts of the outdoors, too.

When you can travel practically anywhere, narrowing the options requires careful consideration. “I’m thinking about going abroad — maybe South America or Asia,” Riordan said. She’s also getting to know her cohorts. “Everyone in the program is so sweet! What they want to do is astonishing,” she said. “Their interests are so diverse and broad. I’m really excited to learn from everyone. I’m really grateful to be part of this.”

About the Scholarship

The Voyager Scholarship was created by former U.S. President Barack and first lady Michelle Obama and Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, to foster exposure to new places and experiences and generate understanding, empathy and cooperation that can equip the next generation to create meaningful change.

The two-year scholarship program is open to students entering their junior year at an accredited four-year college or university in the U.S. who have demonstrated financial need and are U.S. citizens, permanent residents or DACA recipients.

Students can sign up to receive updates and find out when applications for the next cohort open. 

Explore Scholarships at Michigan Tech.

Learn more about scholarship opportunities at Michigan Tech.

Winner Shares Advice on Applying for Scholarships

You can’t receive scholarships if you don’t apply. Riordan, who knew she’d have to land scholarships in order to pay for school, encourages fellow students to find out what’s available and go for the funding. She said the application process itself offers the benefit of crystallizing what a career path might look like and clarifying past experiences and future goals.

“The Voyager scholarship application was the same format as a lot of other scholarships, with multiple essay questions with word limits,” she said. “All of us wanted to write more!”

An Obama-Chesky Voyager scholar at Michigan Tech working on her computer in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Sciences at Michigan Tech.
Riordan in the Atrium of her College — a popular study spot.

All that writing requires time, self-editing and feedback. “Don’t wait until the last minute to apply, and definitely run your application by other people before you send it,” Riordan advised. 

Riordan also encourages applicants to keep a healthy perspective. Scholarships are competitive but there are plenty of them out there. Students can take what they learned and try again.  “Rejection is not the end of the world,” she said.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.