Pushing the right buttons

McNair senior’s campaign helped solve water issues in schools

Harshal Agrawal has left his mark on the Jersey City school district.
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Harshal Agrawal has left his mark on the Jersey City school district.

Many students poised to graduate high school want to leave a legacy behind, something that people can recognize as a significant achievement.

For Harshal Agrawal, a senior at McNair High School in Jersey City, his legacy goes far beyond a mere signature in his yearbook or a photo of him in some event held during his four years at school.

Already accepted at many of the most prestigious universities in the country, Agrawal has already left a mark on his high school both in his studies and his activism.

One of the most impressive accomplishments has been to press the school district to remedy the situation with its water fountains.

Since most of the schools in Jersey City are 100 years old or approaching the century, nearly all have issues with lead in the water fountains.

To prevent exposure to lead contamination, the school district shut off the water fountains until they could come up with a plan to remediate them. The district replaced these with bottled water dispensers, only the bottles were not being replaced in a timely manner. This meant students went without access to fresh water at school.

“This has been going on since first grade,” Agrawal said. “There wasn’t any water, and I was tired of it. I felt I had to do something about it.”

Agrawal was responsible for launching a water fountain petition which also raised awareness about the lead. His Water Fountains Initiative also motivated the district to do more to upgrade the original water fountains and find make them usable again.

“A filter only costs $80,” he said.

Resorting to social media as well as an email blast, Agrawal began a campaign to pressure the school district to guarantee that students had drinking water, and to eventually restore the original fountains.

Agrawal and other students met with then Schools Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles and other administration officials last September.

The district agreed to begin the process of dealing with the drinking fountains by approving a pilot study about installing water filters at McNair, part of a larger program dealing with the fountains district-wide.

“There wasn’t any water, and I was tired of it. I felt I had to do something about it.” — Harshal Agrawal

Even the Board of Education gave the project its stamp of approval. Although Agrawal admitted progress has been slow, he’s sure he will graduate before the district completes the project.

“It’s only a matter of getting the plumbers to come to McNair,” he said. “I’m not going to be here next year so I’m trying to get more PTAs (parent teacher associations) to get involved in their schools.”

Taking this lesson into the future

Agrawal intends to take this lesson beyond high school, and expects to major both in engineering and public policies.

Agrawal will attend college with a significant record of academic accomplishments as well.

In 2018, he was one of 80 high school juniors globally (and the only student from New Jersey) accepted to the Research Science Institute: a 6-week, all-expenses paid summer research program at MIT. It’s the most prestigious STEM research program for high school students in the world.

He was a commended scholar by National Merit Scholars Program

This year, he was a Bryan Cameron Impact Finalist, one of 15 high school seniors in the United States selected to receive a $200,000 scholarship.

This year he is also one of 300 high school seniors in the nation to be named as Science Talent Search Scholar by the Society for Science and the Public.

Starting in 8th grade and extending through high school, Agrawal has been involved in harmful algae bloom research in an attempt to develop a novel method for harmful algae bloom prevention.

“For the fifth phase of my research, I got permission from county freeholders to conduct a field study at the golf course behind Lincoln Park,” he said.  “I colonized three mushroom patches (15 ft. long, 3 ft. wide, 1 ft. deep) at strategic down slopes around a pond on the golf course. I will be continuing this study into the summer.

Making money and his family proud

Born in India, Agrawal came to Jersey City when he was seven.

“My goals are to make money and make my parents proud of me,” he said.

His father was a cashier in a store, but now works as a driver. His mother currently is a housewife.

“Neither one had a chance to go to college,” he said. “But they value education.”

Agrawal has two older sisters, and both currently work as engineers.

Growing up in Jersey City was more than just an ordinary education. Agrawal said he got to meet people of various ethnic backgrounds.

“My friends include people who are Pakistanis, Filipino and Jewish,” he said. “Jersey City is amazing. It has such diversity.”

He said he hopes to do well enough so that he can come back to Jersey City and help mentor other kids in an effort to break the cycle of poverty.

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com