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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Aspiring Princess Who Wants to See Major Changes in America's Education System

For the month of April we're profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.
(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Adora Svitak, 16, Education

“I'm going to own up to really wanting to be a princess.”

That’s the answer Adora Svitak gives when asked what she wanted to be when she grows up.

“Not a Disney princess, but an Elizabeth I kind of princess,” she adds. “I gave up that dream because I realized that I wasn't British.”

(Photo: Adora Svitak)


Born in Oregon and raised in Redmond, Washington, Svitak started doing TV appearances at age seven, including one on Good Morning America for having written more than 300 short stories. At eight, she published her first book, Flying Fingers, about learning, which launched her speaking career—she went on to keynote in front of thousands of educators. At 12, she gave a TED talk called “What Adults Can Learn From Kids,” which, at press time, has 3.3 million views. In it, she calls for adults to refrain from underestimating children’s abilities. “We love challenges,” she told the smiling crowd, “but when expectations are low, trust me, we will sink to them.”

Four years later, at 16, Svitak is still doing a lot of education advocacy. “As a student myself,” she says, “I'm extremely invested in the future of American education. It's why I want to see improvements now—it's an urgency created by being a senior in high school.” Svitak is also an activist for feminism, liberal politics, and youth-oriented causes.

“When I hear from someone my own age,” she says, “that I'm an inspiration or that the things I said on a conference stage accurately channeled their own thoughts, fears, and hopes, I feel like I'm doing what I'm meant to be doing—being a representative for others, and ideally motivating them to speak up themselves.”

Though she’s best known for her talk at the main TED conference in 2010, she’s actually more proud of having organized TEDxRedmond, an independent youth event in Redmond, for four years: “It required dedication and long hours and soul-searching moments of overcoming obstacles that I had never faced in any other place.”

Svitak sees herself as flawed, passionate, idealistic, and occasionally angsty. Her mother is her mentor and her manager. “My mom and I have disagreed a lot starting in my early childhood, but that just meant that she was probably my first debate teacher,” Svitak says. “She's gone to more than eight countries with me as I've traveled for speaking engagements and teaching, and has been crucial in helping me accomplish my goals.”

Her junior year of high school, Svitak joined the debate team, hatching what she calls a “love affair with policy minutiae.” When thinking about her future, she surmises that she may want to be a politician, pushing legislation through in support of education reform, universal health care, reproductive choice, paid parental leave, and “making sex education useful, comprehensive, and mandatory at an earlier age in America's public schools.”

Svitak has an array of awards to her name, including the National Education Association's Award for Outstanding Service to Public Education. She was a Thiel Fellowship semifinalist, won the National Education Startup Challenge, and the Women’s Media Center’s Girls’ State of the Union video contest, earning her media training from the Gloria Steinem-founded non-profit.

While Svitak will never be in line to be England’s queen, she’s pretty far up the road to becoming intellectual royalty.

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.