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NCHS senior earns national STEM award for service work with global impact

A Normal Community High School senior has earned national recognition for his work to improve lives at home in McLean County and around the world in India.

Dhruv Rebba was recently awarded the 2022 4-H Youth in Action Award for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) from the National 4-H Council. Rebba has created multiple projects that advance technological learning opportunities for children and quality of life opportunities for citizens in crisis. That includes founding the nonprofit Universal Help, which has digitized and provided textbooks, internet access, and technology to schools in rural India.

Rebba visited his dad’s home village in rural India in eighth grade, and he immediately noticed a difference in the standard of living and educational opportunities for children there versus those in the Bloomington-Normal area.

“Things we take for granted every day are a luxury there. I noticed that, and I was really into sustainability and the environment. So over the next year, I got this idea to start a nonprofit. In 2018, I decided to start Universal Help," Rebba said.

Universal Help focuses on improving the quality of life for people throughout the world in innovative ways. Rebba said Universal Help does this through many different local and international projects, such as digitizing schools and giving textbooks to schools in rural India, running a COVID-19 isolation center to combat the Delta variant in India, and through local projects such recycling and composting in McLean County.

Rebba said Universal Help also has provided natural disaster relief during Cyclone Yaas in May. During the Yaas floods, Universal Help supported the West Bengal Radio Club by donating Ham Radio equipment.

In addition, Universal Help has distributed groceries and food to more than 250 families in rural villages in India during the first and second waves of COVID-19.

Rebba said one of Universal Help’s goals is to digitalize parts of rural India, partly through application of online class materials and school supplies to several schools. Specifically, Rebba said the donation of online materials to a girl's high school in the remote village NP Kunta, Andhra Pradesh, India, helped with woman empowerment.

Universal Help has impacted over 10,000 people through its projects.

Closer to home

Rebba also implemented a robotics club at Grove Elementary School to increase STEM-based learning opportunities for young children.

For Rebba, becoming involved in robotics at an early age was the driving force that plugged him into STEM.

“The reason I wanted to start a robotics club was to pass on the knowledge and make teaching robotics more accessible. A lot of times, it can be expensive. Through starting a 4-H club at local elementary schools, it makes it more accessible for students to be able to learn robotics,” he said.

Rebba said seeing an idea on an iPad or paper of how to design a robot and transforming that into an actual completed product is something he loves to not only experience himself but alongside students eager to learn.

“I realized how important it’s been to me, and I decided it’s important to give back and make sure that other students around the community and the world have similar opportunities as to what I have because I know how impactful it’s been for me,” Rebba said.

In addition to the Grove Elementary School robotics club, Rebba’s Universal Help program also makes a strong local impact by partnering with the University of Illinois 4-H in Space program, which made learning about space more accessible for nearly 5,000 youth in its first year, with about 3,000 youth from urban and underserved communities.

Rebba said Universal Help also is implementing recycling projects in public parks and working with the Ecology Action Center to create more composting opportunities in the Bloomington-Normal area.

After graduation, Rebba plans to attend a four-year college and study a STEM-related major. Given the success of Universal Help, Rebba hopes to eventually create solar advancement opportunities for people in India through a solar project.

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021.
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