November 30, 2020 Achievements

North High trio’s app takes top prize at Creighton University Hackathon

North High School senior Catrina Tounjian participates in a Zoom conversation, along with classmates Tinh Tran (top, second from left) and Areeha Ilyas (top, third from left).
North High School senior Catrina Tounjian participates in a Zoom conversation, along with classmates Tinh Tran (top, second from left) and Areeha Ilyas (top, third from left).

Areeha Ilyas always believed in looking on the bright side of life.

Indeed, a “Brightside” app created by Ilyas and her two teammates was recently awarded a first place finish at a Hackathon sponsored by Creighton University Health Sciences and Multicultural Affairs. The Hackathon encouraged participants to explore solutions to mental health disparities by using new technology.

“There is still a stigma surrounding mental health,” Ilyas said, explaining the app that would be free to use, accessible and private. “By calling it ‘Brightside,’ we’re emphasizing that there is something positive in seeking help.”

Which is a pretty mature thought given that Ilyas as well as Tinh Tran and Catrina Tounjian are all North High School seniors. The three of them were competing against college students, many of whom were working toward advanced degrees.

“I couldn’t believe it was happening,” Tinh Tran said. “The judges were announcing teams in reverse order. I thought we’d be mentioned, right away, as honorable mention. Then, they announced the third place team and the second place team and, finally, us as Team ACTion, came in first place.”

Team ACTion, huh?

“T stands for Tinh, A stands for Areeha and C stands for Catrina,” Catrina Tounjian explained. “This was truly a team effort between the three of us.”

“Plus you know action speaks louder than words,” Ilyas said.

This is also true for the “Brightside” app, which is targeted toward young, minority people from low-income families as they progress from school life to adulthood.

“That is often a very stressful time for young people,” Tounjian said. “If they can work on mental health issues at an early age, it will set them up for good mental health in the future.”

“Brightside” focuses its attention on four main elements.

It begins by asking users to reflect on their day with a journal. It proceeds into good practices, which charts both physical and emotional activities. The third element involves an affirmation, which can be as simple as repeating a positive phrase. The final “Brightside” element consists of a directory of resources available within a community.

Ordinarily a computer guy, Tran admitted skepticism at the “Brightside” approach.

“I’d never kept a journal before, so I wasn’t sure how effective it would be,” he said. “However, by journaling, it made me reflect on what happened during the day. I found keeping tabs on every single day to be very helpful.”

To some extent, Tran had it easier than Ilyas, since he was able to attend school while she was taking classes remotely.

“That is the hardest thing about COVID-19,” Ilyas said. “There has been a lot of attention placed on fighting the virus through social distancing. At the same time, being socially distant has kept people from friends or relatives who may’ve been part of a support group.”

Ilyas knows, firsthand, about the emotional costs of the novel coronavirus.

“I take classes by computer, I worked on ‘Brightside’ by computer,” she explained with a sigh. “Sometimes, I miss actually talking to my friends.”

Having said that, Ilyas acknowledged Team ACTion probably wouldn’t have been formed if Creighton’s Hackathon had not gone virtual for the first time in its history.

“My family wouldn’t want me to travel to Omaha,” she said. “Doing it online was any story. Surprisingly, the pandemic gave me an opportunity I otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Not only that, but the virtual Hackathon allowed Team ACTion a chance to interact with judges, which included a few big names from California’s Silicon Valley.

“The Hackathon was set up like TV’s ‘Shark Tank,'” Ilyas said. “That was good because I’m a big fan of ‘Shark Tank.'”

Tounjian is proud of how well “Brightside” was received. Indeed, the experience makes her want to pursue public health in the future.

Tinh said he’d like to go into computer programming in the future. Developing “Brightside” has given him a taste of what can be accomplished when utilizing new technology.

In Ilyas’ case, she was the app’s biggest cheerleader.

Whether she was writing a PR plan or assisting with a PowerPoint presentation, Ilyas was a marketing wiz.

Plus Ilyas acknowledged being a bit of a “math nerd.”

“I never thought that three high school kids from Sioux City would be able to compete with college students and win,” she said. “That gives me the confidence to dream big.”

See, there is a bright side to everything.

View the full article by Early Horlyk on the Sioux City Journal.