Peter Thais, 17, a senior at Oyster Bay’s St. Dominic’s High School, has been named a 2021 Coca-Cola Scholar, an honor that comes with a $20,000 college scholarship. He is the only student from Long Island among the 150 awardees, and one of only five New York state seniors chosen from nearly 100,000 applicants by the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation.
“As a member of the 33rd class of Coca-Cola Scholars, Peter Thais not only exemplifies superior leadership, service, and academics — he is a change agent, positively affecting others in the community,” said Laura O’Brien, spokeswoman for the scholarship program.
“As a young adult reaching out to share his voice, Peter has really set himself apart,” Nicole Milkowski, assistant principal at St. Dominic’s, added. “Peter has shown a passionate interest in climate change mitigation, in the context of Indigenous rights; in community involvement and empowering youth leadership, and of course in scholarship, particularly in our very rigorous STEM planned course of study in biology.”
How hard is it to win this award? Fewer than 200 Long Island students have won since the foundation created it in the late 1990s. Some students from the North Shore have been among the winners. Oyster Bay High School students have won twice: Evan R. Fleck in 1994 and Alex Urdea in 1998. A Locust Valley High School student, Lawrence Hoffman, won in 2000, and in the early 2000s, North Shore High School boasted six scholarship winners, and Glen Cove High School one.
“I found out about [winning] a week or two ago, and I was surprised, really,” said Thais, who is bound for Cornell University this fall. “It’s an exceptional scholarship, really prestigious. The Coca-Cola Scholar Award not only makes me feel more comfortable attending Cornell, but has me excited for the future.”
Thais and his family are members of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, from the Akwesasne Reservation in northeastern New York. Since moving to Glen Cove, they have kept “one foot in each location” at both the reservation and on Long Island, Peter said. His primary interest is indigeneity and climate change mitigation, and he said he hoped to make that his focus at Cornell.
“Essentially, prior to colonization, Indigenous people walked Mother Earth with a high degree of respect for the land,” Thais noted. “In the era of industrialization, we have come to an awareness that we need to give back to the land, so that all animals can live in a symbiotic manner.”
He is also an advocate of a return to a healthier and more sustainable traditional diet, and other practices that would reduce our carbon footprint.
His in-school activities include National Honor Society, Mock Trial and Model United Nations. He is a Bayhawk Leader at St. Dominic, serving as a mentor while helping freshman adapt to school. He is also a three-sport athlete, and captain of the varsity swim team.
Outside school, Thais has been equally active. He was a keynote speaker for the Intertribal Agricultural Council in 2019, and at the National Tribal Leadership Climate Change Summit on April 1. He has attended the Native Earth Camp, hosted by SUNY Environmental Sciences and Forestry; was a Haudenosaunee youth delegate to the Youth Climate Action Summit at the United Nations, where he was a member of the Indigenous Caucus; and he was a panelist at the Nature Conservancy conference in Manhattan.
“With the growing urgency of climate change, it’s important that anyone with knowledge from the Indigenous community help to contribute to the discussion,” he said.
As a Coca-Cola scholar, he joins an active fraternity of scholarship winners going back 33 years, thanks to the foundation, which actively encourages the members to interact. “It was quite impactful to me,” said Fleck, a 1994 OBHS graduate who is now a partner at Milbank LLP and a member of the law firm’s Financial Restructuring Group in Manhattan. “I knew I was going to be going to Penn, but it gave me a mandate to continue. These people were giving me so much money, I felt I had an obligation. So, I’ve remained in contact with the scholarship foundation, attended awards banquet and their annual selection weekend and continued to do community service with them.”
Thais shared Fleck’s enthusiasm for the collegiality he sees among the Coca-Cola Scholar winners. “The funding is important, yes, but to interact with the other winners, every one of them, to share their dedication and passion, inspires me to go further on my path,” he said. “And maybe I can help them in their path, too.”
In an age when Greta Thunberg, an 18-year-old from Sweden, has shaken up the world’s conversation about global warming, and Amanda Gorman, a 23-year-old from Los Angeles, transformed the world of American poetry in six minutes at President Biden’s inauguration, is there something going on with today’s youth?
“I’m really impressed with this generation — I think they’re risk takers,” said Milkowski, who has been in education since 1998. “Of course, teenagers are teenagers. Peter’s just an extraordinary one. His accomplishments are not the norm.”
Thais doesn’t quite see himself that way. “To be quite honest, I’m proud of our generation for stepping up to the plate,” he said, admitting that he had walked past Thunberg at the UN but didn’t meet her. “But for all the youth involvement we do see, there’s much more work to be done.”