On Feb. 23, Drexel University announced their three Truman Scholarship nominees: Sky Harper, Rida Memon and Anna Vallarta. The three students have demonstrated a commitment to careers in public service, a goal for global impact, and unprecedented leadership potential— all hallmarks of former President Harry S. Truman’s life of civil service from the Senate floor to the Oval Office.
Since its inception in 1975, the Truman Foundation has recognized thousands of students. Each year, the Truman Foundation receives hundreds of applications; however, fewer than 60 undergraduates receive this prestigious award. Once nominated for the Truman Scholarship by an undergraduate institution, students must complete a rigorous application process, which includes crafting a policy proposal. Selected scholars earn up to $30,000 toward graduate education as well as a lifelong network of Truman scholars. In 2023 the Truman Foundation selected 199 finalists out of 705 total applications, and for the second time in history, one of Drexel’s own, Sky Harper, has emerged from the competitive applicant pool as a finalist.
Harper, a junior in the Pennoni Honors College, has found a passion for research and its predictive, progressive powers. As a chemistry major with minors in biology and interdisciplinary problem solving, Harper has spent countless hours researching polymers and working at the Agricultural Research Service, but his impact expands beyond the lab. In an effort to expand the resources available for indigenous students, Harper founded Drexel Indigenous Students of the Americas, an organization focused on raising awareness for indigenous cultures, traditions, and beliefs on campus and throughout the city.
While most Truman Scholars have public policy backgrounds, Harper believes in bridging the divide between social and scientific fields.
“Interdisciplinary work is something that doesn’t happen as often as it should,” Harper told the Triangle. “I believe that by integrating both fields, you can make a difference.”
When approaching the application process, Harper adopted a unique angle: one that triangulated scientific research, public service and healthcare. Harper’s policy proposal includes three prongs and addresses the director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, an overseer of the Native American Research Centers for Health. First, Harper proposes internal capacity building on reservations that often lack the infrastructure to house research. He then seeks to increase personnel at these severely understaffed research centers and bolster resources that would expedite the application process for funding. Finally, Harper’s policy funds outside scientists to review findings and validate problems that are so often overlooked.
“Some of the issues we [Native Americans] have are not well researched, and people aren’t motivated to help address these issues because they feel there is not enough evidence to support these things really being issues,” Harper explains.
After graduating, Harper will enroll in an MD/PhD program. He then aspires to return to his home reservation in Arizona to establish research programs at tribal colleges.
“I really want to do research in my own community to say yes! These issues are issues, these are the reasons why, and this is what we need to do now,” says Harper.
For now, he will prepare for his upcoming interview in Arizona — the final stage of the selection process until scholars are announced at the end of April.
Another nominee, Rida Memon, a junior global studies major, recalls how it felt to earn a nomination. “To know that Drexel was supporting me felt really good,” said Memon.
Through her first co-op at nonprofit HIAS Pennsylvania, Memon worked to provide refugees and asylum seekers with social and legal services. There, she exercised her Spanish minor when immersed in the language with some of her clients. Memon also drafted several policies while working with SEPTA, and she plans to complete her third and final co-op at Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity.
Through her experience in the nonprofit sector, Memon discovered that Pennsylvanianians retain a criminal record even if their case is dismissed or they are found not guilty. “These criminal records are available on the Internet,” explains Memon. “They affect people’s abilities to get housing and find jobs, and the process to get those records removed from the Internet is very long and complicated.”
Memon believes this is one of the state’s most pressing problems, which is why she focused her policy proposal on expunging these records.
In ten years, she hopes to balance a law career with broad-scale advocacy. In the meantime, she will continue to make her mark in Philadelphia, happily passing up a paycheck for her principles.
“People try to convince me to steer away from public service sometimes because of the money. But for me, it’s not about the money. This is just the work I like to do,” says Memon.
Drexel’s third nominee, Anna Vallarta, is a third year student studying biology with minors in music theory and composition. In pursuing a medical career as an endocrinologist, Vallarta seeks to represent and support the trans community in a healthcare system riddled with inequities and hamstrung by anti-trans legislation.
“Hormones for gender dysphoria is a new and emerging field. Even though it’s been around for a while, it has not been prioritized,” explains Vallarta. “I would also like to have more trans faces in the field.”
Although Vallarta wants to transform medicine from the inside out, she finds tremendous value in enacting change from a federal level.
“The scholarship wasn’t initially on my radar,” says Vallarta. “I’m used to reading scientific papers with experimental results and probability, and then this was looking at a lot of legal language.”
But when an advisor suggested applying for the Truman Scholarship, Vallarta took a chance, even in the midst of challenging courses and MCAT preparation. In an address to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Vallarta introduced legislation that would require military healthcare insurance to cover gender-affirming procedures for its transgender soldiers.
“For cis-gendered people, these surgeries might be cosmetic, but for trans people, these surgeries are mental-health improving,” explains Vallarta.
On campus, Vallarta finds community in the Filipino Intercultural Society and participates on the fencing team. For her co-op, Vallarta worked at Rutgers University on the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine trial.
While only 55-65 students receive the Truman scholarship each year, hundreds more like these three Drexel undergraduates demonstrate an admirable commitment to global improvement that is bound to pay dividends.