Truman Scholarships are a life-changing experience for young people who want to change the world
Most elite academic scholarships require students to serve humankind in some way. In his will, Cecil Rhodes stipulated that winners of the Rhodes Scholarships have “moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings.”
But while some of the top awards focus on research or academic prowess, several seek to advance people who want to serve the public, and Arizona State University is helping students earn them.
Kyle Mox, director of the Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarship Advisement, said that ASU students are good candidates for public-service scholarships because there are so many opportunities to become involved.
“The breadth of language training we provide at ASU, like the Chinese Flagship Program and the Melikian Center, makes our students a really good fit,” he said. “ASU has the Tillman Center and is a veteran-friendly campus, which is a high priority for some of these awards.
The Truman Scholarship is the nation’s most prestigious award for undergraduates who are pursuing careers in public service. Winners receive up to $30,000 toward graduate study leading to careers in government or public service, as well as career-development opportunities and federal internships. The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation was created in 1975 after President Harry S. Truman died, and the first awards were in 1978.
There have been 21 Sun Devil Truman Scholars, including five in the past decade, placing ASU in the top 10 percent of U.S. institutions for winners, ahead of the University of Texas, New York University and the University of Michigan, and equal to MIT and Princeton.
Students who want the award must show that they already have a deep commitment to service, Mox said.
“They have to feel strongly about something. Students who win the Truman Scholarship tend to have pretty remarkable backgrounds, which have led to them having strong motivations,” he said.
“Nobody goes into public service just as something to do.”
The current Truman Scholar from ASU, Alexa Scholl, is a member of the Prescott City Council and is the co-founder of Political Literates, an on-campus organization that aims to fight apathy by delivering political information in an easy-to-understand and unbiased way. Frank Smith III, who graduated from ASU in the spring, won the award in 2015 for his work to create a state law that waives college tuition for former foster children.
Embedded in a community
The award is life-changing, according to Chad Redwing, an ASU alum who was a Truman Scholar in 1995. He said the experience can open different kinds of paths.
“I remember I was sitting in the quad above the library, probably the end of sophomore year, and I had always been conflicted internally about my love for reading and conversation and scholarship and my desire to make the world a better place,” he said. “It was that man-of-action versus man-of-thought conflict.
One of his professors convinced him he could have it both ways, and he was accepted as a Truman Scholar for 1995.
“It’s a lifelong motivation to construct our lives in a way to serve others more than ourselves,” said Redwing, who, as a freshman, launched a nonprofit to help homeless families.
“I was in the Peace Corps and I realized that I don’t like traditional leadership structures. I like being embedded in a community and working with community members to make their local situation better.”
So rather than pursue a traditional academic career at a university, Redwing is a humanities professor at Modesto Junior College in California.
“Modesto rates as one of the 10 most miserable places to live,” he said. “It has one of the three lowest educational attainment rates of any city in the county. I love it.”
Many of his students are farmworkers. Redwing wanted to live the life his students did, so he bought a goat farm.
“These men and women, when they come into the classroom, they’re hungry for what you’re going to give them,” he said. “When I wake up at 4:30 in the morning and have to feed the goats before class, I can tell my students, ‘I did the same thing at the crack of dawn and I’m still ready to learn.’"
Over the years, Redwing has started three charter schools and two more nonprofits. He said he would tell any students who are considering applying for the Truman Scholarship to not be afraid.
“The process is wonderful because they find a way to uncover the principles and passions that drive you as a human being,” he said. “And they do an excellent job of cultivating a network across generations of people who feel the same way as you.”
The Truman’s $30,000 in graduate school funding also is an important draw. In her sophomore year at ASU, Danielle Back decided to apply to medical school.
“After volunteering at the New Song Center, where I worked with families going through the bereavement process, and interning at a public health (nongovernment organization) in Togo, I realized that in addition to working to create systemic change in health care, I wanted to have a more personal impact on patients,” said Back, who was a Truman Scholar in 2011, attended Harvard Medical School and is now a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
She said that the scholarship inspired her during medical school.
“Because of the Truman Scholarship, I have sought out more public-service experiences, including interning in the Division of Parasitic Disease and Malaria at the CDC and lobbying for medication-assisted recovery for patients with substance-use disorders in Massachusetts,” she said.
Top awards for a variety of interests
While the Truman is among the most prestigious awards, ASU works with students on applying for several different public-service scholarships, Mox said. Several require a commitment to work in the government.
Two scholarships fast-track students into foreign-service careers with mentoring and internships. The Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship Program provides up to $37,500 to undergraduate and graduate students, and the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship provides up to $95,000 toward a two-year master's degree.
Students who are interested in working in national security should consider the Boren Awards for International Study, which provide up to $30,000 to study abroad to become proficient in a non-Western European language that’s critical to U.S. interests. Recent ASU winners have studied Russian and Tagalog.
The Udall Undergraduate Scholarship is for sophomores or juniors who aspire to environmental careers or for Native American students interested in health care or tribal policy.
The Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship prepares students to be competitive candidates for top graduate degree programs and provides $5,000 in grad school funding.
Juniors who win a PPIA fellowship attend an intensive seven-week academic program during the summer before their senior year. Christopher Frias, an ASU senior majoring in public service and public policy, was one of them. He took courses in economics, statistics, domestic policy analysis and Chinese global policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and leaves to study abroad in Spain this month.
Frias is in the first cohort in ASU’s Public Service Academy and was the first chief of staff. The academy has offered him a way for him to give back.
“Last year my mission team worked with the Be A Leader Foundation to help them put on workshops for middle schoolers,” he said. “We taught them how to set goals and see a future for themselves that extended past high school.”
After earning his master’s degree, he could see working in Washington, D.C., for a while before returning to the Phoenix area and working to improve life in the West Valley, where he is from.
“One thing I missed growing up was exposure to different paths. It was expected that I would go to vocational school or community college, but not a four-year university,” he said.
“I’d like to improve education in Arizona to show the different avenues available to all types of people.”
The Office of National Scholarship Advisement will hold two information sessions on the Truman Scholarship, at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, both in room 242 of the Honors Hall on the Tempe campus.