In 1921, the year Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics, a high school principal in Pittsburgh supported a proposed idea for a nationwide honor society to recognize student achievement. When the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) passed a resolution to form the National Honor Society (NHS) that year, Edward Rynearson’s school, the Fifth Avenue High School, was awarded the first chapter. NHS was never intended to be a glorified honor roll, however. Its four pillars—scholarship, service, leadership, and character—recognized students who excelled beyond academics to become well-rounded leaders.

Under the sponsorship of NASSP, NHS grew to over 1,000 chapters by 1930. The organization established its own motto, emblem, and constitution, including the four pillars that continue to serve as its foundation. Today, as NHS celebrates its centennial, it has more than 1 million active members with chapters in all 50 states and around the world.

The Pillars Personified

Allie Swain

For students such as Alexandra “Allie” Swain, the four pillars have been the scaffold to authentic leadership. As a freshman at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, she “wanted to become a part of NHS more than anything because it was a group of students who felt just as passionate as me about making certain that their service hours were a part of their education.”

She was inducted into the Windy City Chapter of NHS her junior year and didn’t waste any time getting involved in service projects. When she wasn’t planning a fundraiser for a pet shelter or organizing holiday celebrations for underprivileged youth, she was spending her lunch hours studying and tutoring fellow students.

Swain also became a tireless advocate for school safety. Upset by a dangerous crossing between two buildings at her school, she lobbied the local aldermen to establish a flashing pedestrian crossing light. Initially rebuffed, she circulated a petition and gathered 1,301 signatures, developed a proposal, and held presentations. She lobbied for two years until she finally won approval for the crossing. After a school shooting threat, she founded a security committee. “I helped facilitate student-led workshops on what to do if you ever see a weapon in school. We established an anonymous tip line that would alert the main office.”

Her passion was infectious. As vice president of the Windy City Chapter, she worked hard to make service projects meaningful for other students instead of a “requirement” they had to do. She and her NHS executive board developed a new service model in which students who were strangers but shared similar passions were paired up to start a project in an organization that aligned with their interests.

“Sometimes students get lost in why they are doing service,” Swain says. “Instead of ‘This looks good,’ we asked, ‘Does this satisfy your soul? What is the passion that whispers to you?’”

Swain won an NHS Scholarship that has helped pay for expenses at Stanford University, where she is a freshman. “It’s an overwhelming blessing,” she says. She hopes to become a lawyer, perhaps a district attorney or a civil rights attorney who gives a voice to the voiceless. What she learned through NHS is a blueprint for how she wants to live her life. “I want to make sure my commitment to service is never, never shadowed over by the need for money or the need for career satisfaction. Community engagement and empathy overall should be the highest standard of how you value your life.”

Isabella Sarria

As the only Latina in her class, Isabella Sarria felt self-conscious and alone when she started high school at Early College High School in Raleigh, NC. But things turned around in her sophomore year after she was inducted into NHS, allowing her to find a close group of friends. She went on to serve as chapter president in her junior and senior years. In weekly meetings, the group bonded as they planned service projects for Habitat for Humanity and started a tutoring program.

“It was nerve-wracking at first, but it showed me what I was capable of,” Sarria says. “It gave me inner confidence. People didn’t expect me to become a straight-A student and president of the National Honor Society. It was like, ‘Wow, she can do it.’ It was cool.”

Being a leader, she learned, was not about handing out directives. “Telling people what to do was not effective. I worked with people.”

Now a 21-year-old senior at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, she has further honed her leadership skills. She has worked in the admissions office as a diversity student coordinator. She is also vice president of the Intercultural Greek Council as well as co-president of a Latinx group called Ole.

Through her leadership in Ole, Sarria helps create a community for Latinx students. “Whether it be a space to ask questions about where to find the best authentic food or get help with homework, we have a community,” she says. “We also focus a lot on having difficult conversations within the community and different topics that we all may have encountered as Latinx students/kids growing up but never got the chance to talk about. We also do education and awareness all over campus to create a safer space for Latinx students in general.”

Sarria has been accepted to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for a master’s degree, studying women’s reproductive and sexual health. She plans to go on to medical school, become an obstetrician-gynecologist, and focus on global maternal health disparities.

Gavin Arneson

Gavin Arneson, an NHS Scholarship recipient, also intends to use the leadership skills he developed in health care. A senior at New York University, he is double majoring in nursing and public health. “Taking care of patients is all about leadership,” he says. “The buck stops with you. You have to be responsible for a patient’s improvement.”

Arneson is still exploring career options, but thinks he may go into psychiatric or pediatric nursing.

His four-year NHS Scholarship has been invaluable in allowing him to take unpaid internships and a class during the summer, as well as paying for the day-to-day expenses of a college student.

Going to college in New York City has been a big adjustment from his childhood in a tiny rural town in the Colorado mountains. But in some ways, being president of the NHS chapter at Clear Creek High School in Evergreen, CO, expanded his horizons. Not only did they do community clean-ups and environmental projects in their small town, they also raised money for girls in developing countries to go to high school.

Arneson wanted service projects to be meaningful, rather than just checking off a requirement. For a service project on composting, the chapter held a Community Pumpkin Smash. Before participants could take a hammer to the pumpkins, a guest speaker explained the value of composting. “Students would learn about the impact on the community. They would be glad they did it and not just to get service hours.

“I learned that leadership is less about telling people what to do and more about inspiring them in a shared vision. Instead of ‘you need to do this,’ it is making sure everyone is part of the vision.”

A Well-Rounded Experience

Strong bonds with faculty advisers are also one reason that NHS has been going strong for a century.

Greg Brooks, faculty adviser at The Villages Charter High School in The Villages, FL, along with the members of the faculty council, has set stringent standards for the school’s NHS chapter. Students come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, but all have parents who work at The Villages, a retirement community near Ocala, FL.

Brooks’ NHS chapter is not a rubber stamp for kids with good grades and who have logged some service hours. They must have a 3.5 unweighted and 4.0 weighted GPA—more stringent than the 3.0 minimum set by the national organization. Brooks also looks at leadership activities and well-rounded experiences, such as volunteering at both a hospital and church. “People with diverse experiences are getting higher marks,” he says. Of the 70 applicants this year, the average number of community service hours was 120. “As long as I am here, it is not going to be just a resume builder. It should mean something. You are our role models, and we take it seriously.”

The chapter has donated blankets to the homeless, hosted food drives for local pantries, and written cards and sung to residents at an assisted living facility. “We have good intergenerational activity,” he says.

Brooks hopes that in the future NHS will encourage students to not only take part in community service, but become activists and speak out on causes they believe in. “You can be a leader now and your voice can be heard,” he says.

NHS Goes Virtual

In this world of virtual learning, the NHS chapter at Agora Cyber Charter School in King of Prussia, PA, stands out as a shining example. It became the first cyber school to start an NHS chapter 12 years ago. The school holds online meetings monthly, and students do service projects on their own, whether it be donating blankets to the homeless, holding a food drive, or tutoring other students via Blackboard Collaborative.

“Everything is done online,” says Rebecca Adams, the faculty adviser. “Nothing is done in person. Even the induction ceremony is virtual.”

With the pandemic forcing many public schools to make the switch to remote learning, Adams has fielded phone calls from districts across the country wanting to know how to run an NHS chapter virtually. In fact, she has created a slide presentation for educators to help them continue online.

Distance hasn’t kept cyber scholars from living up to the ideals of the four pillars. Agora students have collected money for gift cards and school supplies for families that are struggling. Two years ago, the president and vice president launched a fundraiser to raise awareness for a student’s surgery that would help him walk. “The students come up with great ideas,” Adams says.

Whether the meetings are online or in person, NHS ignites the passions and dreams of future leaders—and has done so for the last 100 years. “These students are the cream of the crop, the best of our best. They are our future lawyers, bankers, politicians, the leaders of business organizations. They already have demonstrated some leadership. We hone it and polish it,” Brooks says.

For a century, NHS alumni have demonstrated lifelong habits anchored in scholarship, service, leadership, and character. Here’s to the next 100 years of shaping tomorrow’s leaders with these four pillars that have undeniably withstood the test of time. —

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.