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Listening to high school finalists of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today, we'd like to introduce you to a young woman named Sara Roshan.

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SARA ROSHAN: Hi, my name is Sara.

KELLY: Sara is a student at West Adams Preparatory High School in Los Angeles. She is originally from Herat Province, Afghanistan.

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SARA: I had a long journey that changed my life forever, and it was my journey to the U.S.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

That journey is the subject of a podcast she created. It tells of her family's decision to leave Afghanistan and the central role that education played in that decision.

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SARA: My mom did not want me to have the same destiny as hers, where she was the same age as me but banned from school, so she left her parents behind.

SUMMERS: Sara tells of the millions of girls and young women who were denied education in her home country. She knows that while she has left, many remain.

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SARA: I hear this a lot, when people go, like, you're lucky for coming here, or I'm glad you made it out of there. Well, thanks, but I wasn't really glad at first - that guilty feeling of making it out of there while watching others being left behind. Obviously, I can't make big changes, but I can study harder for myself, for my friends and for all the people in my country.

KELLY: Hers is one of more than 3,300 entries our education team received this year in the fifth annual NPR Student Podcast Challenge. Sara's was one of 13 chosen by our judges as high school finalists.

SUMMERS: And as always, we received a broad mix of podcasts from different backgrounds, places and experiences - from moving, personal stories like Sara's to deeply-reported projects, like an entry from students in Maryland exploring the fentanyl crisis that has affected their school system.

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UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: For reference, fentanyl is 50 times more lethal than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: It's a really big problem in schools, and there have been overdoses really near to us - in some of, like, our neighboring high schools.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: People are actively dying. There's someone overdosing right now.

SUMMERS: Three students from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., interviewed local experts and educators at their school about the disturbing jump in overdoses in recent years.

KELLY: Well, this year we got a lot of podcasts about gaming and sports. The judges singled out this one as a finalist.

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AYAH AL-MASYABI: I'm in the kitchen cleaning dishes after school. As I scrub away at the plates in my hand, one of my many favorite soccer podcasts is blasting out loud. Like most American soccer fans, I watch, listen and learn from these pundits. But sometimes, their comments on soccer in America can seem a bit off, which begs the question - has soccer in America changed over the generations? If so, why? And what does the future of American soccer look like?

KELLY: That is 16-year-old Ayah Al-Masyabi, a high school student in Branson, Colo., who confidently sets out to answer that question. Along the way, she weaves in the story of how, when she was younger, an older boy taught her the fundamentals of the game.

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AYAH: Since the moment that boy taught me how to play, soccer has been my life - through many miserable 90 minutes and overwhelming moments of joy, but, more importantly, memories with those I love.

SUMMERS: And sadly, we got quite a few student podcasts this year about gun violence and mass shootings, including this one from Natalie Martinez, a student in the After School Matters program in Chicago, who survived one of these incidents at a local mall.

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NATALIE MARTINEZ: It was March 26, 2022, when I heard six gunshots and ran to the back of the store. Suddenly, I felt terrified, aghast and petrified. While I was sitting and crying, I called my family and friends, telling them I'll miss and love them to the moon and back, because I thought I was going to die.

SUMMERS: Natalie interviewed a Chicago police officer for advice on what students should do in such a situation.

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UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: No. 1 is to always be aware of your environment and any possible dangers that might be around you. No. 2 is...

KELLY: As always, many of our student podcasters explored their own identities - their places in the world. Two of this year's high school finalists are by and about transgender students. Dylan McDonald is a student at Marblehead High School in Marblehead, Mass.

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DYLAN MCDONALD: Hi. My name is Dylan, and I am a transgender teen.

SUMMERS: For his reporting, Dylan interviewed his mom. He says she has been the person in my corner. And his podcast concludes with this message.

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DYLAN: Kids like me are why we need to fight these anti-trans bills. Nobody should be stripped of their health care and bodily autonomy. Again, I think my mom says it the best.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: To be a mom of a transgender kid is the same as anything that you're fighting for your kid for, right? So as a mama bear, like every mama bear, you're going to make sure that your child receives everything they possibly have out there that's an option to them that could make them content and happy and feel like themselves.

KELLY: That is Dylan McDonald and his mom. He's a high school finalist in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge. On Morning Edition, we will announce our grand prize winner in the middle school grades. And tomorrow, on this program, we'll have our high school grand prize winner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.