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ASU offers path to top scholarships for students devoted to public service

ASU helps students dedicated to public service get top scholarship awards.
ASU is in the top 10% of U.S. institutions for winners of Truman Scholarships.
August 31, 2018

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 Next Generation Service Corps is a great program for us, and three of the four nominees for the Truman Scholarship were from there,” he said.

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.”

Current Truman Scholar Alexa School is a member of the Prescott City Council.

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.

ASU student Christopher Frias

ASU senior Christopher Frias, who won a Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship, would like to eventually work to improve education in the West Valley. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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ASU contributes to national exhibit on mass incarceration

August 31, 2018

'States of Incarceration,' to be displayed at Phoenix library, will prompt frank discussions about the prison system in America

The granddaughter of a man who served as the warden of Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary sometimes referred to as “the Alcatraz of the South,” Leah Sarat sees the irony in helming a project that asks people to rethink America’s prison system.

But back in 2015, when a colleague introduced her to "States of Incarceration," a traveling exhibition that seeks to shed light on the topic of mass incarceration in the U.S., she was intrigued.

An associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Religious and Philosophical Studies, Sarat’s research explores the intersection of religion and migration in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. At the time she learned of the exhibition, she had been focusing on immigrant detention. It was the perfect opportunity to bring discussion of the issue out of the ivory tower and into the lives of people affected by it.

“This is something that allows myself and my students to really engage with our surrounding community,” Sarat said. “I have a passion for any project that can connect the academic world and all the expertise that we bring, the theoretical and historical background that we can bring, to the community, to people who are asking questions and want to know more about certain topics.”

Launched in New York City in April 2016, “States of Incarceration” is run by the Humanities Action Lab, a coalition of more than 20 universities that collaborate to produce projects that foster public dialogue on pressing social issues by exploring local histories to understand shared global concerns. More than 700 university students and formerly incarcerated individuals from 30 communities across the country contributed to the exhibition, funded by a $310,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Beginning Wednesday and running through Oct. 27, “States of Incarceration” will be on display at Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix. The official launch will take place Friday, Sept. 7, on the main floor of the library with a free screening of the documentary “1994: Detention at Crossroads,” followed by a Q&A with the film’s director, ASU alum Judith Perera.

“We are pleased to offer our space as a place for our communities to have access to an exploration of a community issue,” said Lee Franklin, the library’s community relations manager. “Being housed in a public library, it allows for those attending, participating and exploring any topic to continue a further discovery of this and related topics through additional library materials and programs.”

Since 2016, Phoenix Public Library has such offered workshops and resources to formerly incarcerated individuals as the Set Aside Clinic and Second Chance/Re-Entry job fairs, which help remove barriers to employment, housing and voting in the hopes of reducing recidivism.

The “States of Incarceration” exhibition will include panels created by students of Sarat’s history graduate course, “Incarceration, Immigration and the Borderlands.” The panels — collectively titled “The Cost of Immigrant Detention: How Do Profits Shape Punishment?” — feature Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center, a privately run immigrant detention facility that can hold more than 1,500 men and women at any given time.

In fall 2015, Sarat and her students took the hourlong drive down to Eloy, about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, to visit the detention center in person. It was Perera’s first foray into the subject. The images she saw during that trip have stayed with her — trash bags filled with the possessions of recently housed detainees lined the halls from one end to another — as well as other sensory recollections.

“It was just shocking to me on so many levels, but one of the things that always stood out was the unique smell, like cleaning liquid,” she said. “And it was very cold. Literally but also metaphorically, the atmosphere was very cold.”

Her reflection on that visit was recorded as part of the audio component of the exhibition, which visitors can listen to with their smartphones. (There will also be Spanish-language translations available in a pamphlet.)

Sarat and her students focused on immigrant detention for the panels they produced because of the proximity and relevance in the state. She explained, “Arizona is often ground zero for national attention on immigration, but we thought it was important to bring that into the larger story about incarceration because sometimes those conversations don’t happen together.”

The purpose of immigrant detention facilities is purely administrative holding. “In practice, though,” Sarat said, “it’s no difference from prison.”

She and her students also visited the public Florence Correctional Center, where the difference between a for-profit facility and a government facility was most noticeable to them in the quality of food (they said Florence’s offerings were bearable whereas Eloy’s consisted of a “glob of mashed-together mystery meat” billed as chicken-fried steak). But that difference also affects the quality of health care offered and even the amount of training guards receive.

Afterward, Perera was haunted by lingering questions: Why are incarceration and detention facilities run this way? When did they become this way? What factors contribute to it?

Having worked as a lawyer before going back to get her doctorate in history from the School of Historical, Religious and Philosophical Studies, she decided to take on a few pro bono cases for some of the detainees she had met. That’s when she realized she could combine her legal expertise with her history chops to find the answers to those questions and try to make change.

“As a lawyer, you can only go so far. But as a historian, you don’t have any limits. You can go back in the archive and try to understand how the system came to be,” Perera said.

She has since taken the 300-page dissertation that came out of that investigation and turned it into a documentary (the same one that will be screened at the Sept. 7 launch of the exhibition).

“People can either agree or disagree, but after viewing it, they’ll be able to carry on the conversation with a more historically grounded perspective,” she said.

In addition to the documentary screening, a whole host of events will take place throughout September and October in support of the exhibition, including an event in cooperation with the Mass Story Lab Project, which trains individuals impacted by incarceration in storytelling techniques to share their experience.

“Incarceration is often stigmatized,” Sarat said. “We might have neighbors and friends and people we interact with every day who have been impacted by it and we just don’t know. This is a way to externalize that and also tackle some serious questions. The exhibit does not seek to answer those questions, though; it just seeks to amplify a public conversation. And we’re not starting the conversation; it’s already going on. This is just a really exciting chance to connect stories from the Southwest to the larger national conversation.

“I started this project thinking that we need to lock a lot of people up for safety. But after going through the process and seeing people’s stories, I think we need to take a step back and question the default assumption that putting people in prisons is the best approach to public safety and start looking at other models.”

Top photo: Part of the exhibit features panels on which visitors can anonymously place stickers of their location to demonstrate the number of people affected by incarceration and to what degree. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

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