You Should Know… Ben Joel

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Ben Joel. Photo courtesy of Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards

McLean resident Ben Joel is passionate about learning and teaching. The 18-year-old saw how people’s education deteriorated during the COVID pandemic and and co-founded Intutorly, an online tutoring program used globally. Joel’s efforts earned him a Diller Award, which recognizes teenagers making a positive impact on the world. This fall, Joel will attend Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He plans to use his Diller Award prize money of $36,000 to help pay for tuition.

Congratulations on willing the Diller Award. What did it mean for you to win it?

It means a lot to me. First off, the recognition — being recognized among my peers, the fellow awardees. It was really special getting to be part of that community, connecting with them. I would say that, on top of the recognition, receiving the award itself was such an honor because it helps me ease the financial burden of college. But it also means that the work that I’m doing is making a real impact, and I think that the biggest part of Diller is recognizing that and affirming that.

You’re the descendant of three generations of educators. What made you decide to pursue education?

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It was a combination of having education be such a central theme throughout my childhood and witnessing the effects of the pandemic on students. Ever since I was little and could listen to stories and comprehend them, I had been hearing about how my paternal great-grandfather had immigrated to the U.S. with the sole purpose of attending college. And then on my mom’s side, my grandfather was the first person in his family to attend college.

In just one generation, my family went from immigrants working in a scrap-metal yard to a law school professor. So throughout my childhood, I’ve seen firsthand the power of education to uplift socially and economically.

That, coupled with reading the articles that came out in March of 2020, seeing experts call my generation “a lost generation of students” because of the predicted learning losses from being forced to be outside of the classroom for so long. It really resonated with me. So it was a combination of the two.

How did COVID affect your education?

For my education, like every other student at the time, I could no longer attend classes in the classroom. It was all online, and I found it very challenging. Even as a high schooler, it was hard to stay focused. It was hard to connect with my teachers and my classmates. So that was part of the reason why I had an understanding of what the younger students were going through. Because if for me as an older student, it was hard, I could only imagine what an elementary or middle school student was going through. So we knew that we had to take action to help tackle these tremendous challenges.

How has founding Intutorly changed your life?

It changed my life in many ways. The first way I would say is through an enhanced recognition of one of the greatest challenges facing the world, which is the educational divide, a difference in academic outcomes between diverse groups of students. I had heard of it pre-pandemic, but after founding Intutorly after getting deep into the research about how the pandemic would affect this educational divide and widen it, I would say I have a greater understanding because I’ve also gotten to see it firsthand with Intutorly students.

Obviously, it has changed my life in other ways, because it allowed me to receive the Diller Award which, again, has allowed me to connect with my peers who are doing amazing things to repair the world. And I’m very inspired by them. I got to meet them at the awards ceremony and got to hear their stories, which definitely inspired me with their spirit of volunteerism. On top of that, I have a renewed appreciation for my generation and other high school students who were so eager to sign up and volunteer their time in a global crisis. So my experience with Intutorly has definitely given me a lot to think about.

Can you give a shout-out to your congregation?

We go to a temple called Sixth & I in D.C. That’s where both my brother and I were bar mitzvahed and it’s such a beautiful and historic synagogue.

How would you describe yourself as a Jew?

I would say I’m a Jew based on principles and belonging to an amazing community of people. The principles of Judaism are very closely intertwined with Intutorly as an organization. Obviously one of the central pillars of Judaism is education, a lifetime of learning, a lifetime of teaching. And I got to experience that throughout my childhood from my grandparents and my parents, which has been a very special and impactful experience for me. ■

Charlotte Freedberg is a freelance writer.

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