On most days, the Office for Fellowships and Pre-Health Advising offers steady and calm advice to students and alumni nominated by faculty to participate in research and study programs. On April 20, Vassar students Kali Tambree ’17, Raymond Magsaysay ’17 and Cecil Carey ’17 were declared winners. They will join 51 other Truman scholars this year in Harry Truman’s hometown of Independence, MI on May 29 for an awards ceremony.
The news came several days before the set announcement date. Tambree recalled, “I was genuinely shocked. I wasn’t expecting to find out then at all.” The students were pleased to discover that their classmates had won. Carey noted, “I was very happy to know my two friends Raymond and Kali won. Put simply, the scholarship is an amazing opportunity and brings me one step closer to my dream of being a high school educator.”
The geographic diversity of Vassar’s finalists this year helped give the school a unique opportunity to celebrate three Truman Scholars. The program usually admits one to three students from each state. Carey’s hometown is Skowhegan, ME, while Tambree lives in Baltimore City, MD and Magsaysay hails from California and the Philippines. The most recent Vassar Truman recipient was Nathan Tauger ’14, who won the scholarship in 2013.
The Truman Scholars program was established by Congress in 1975 to help college juniors pursue public leadership. Each student had their own goals within that sphere. Carey asserted, “I believe that education is the most important site of struggle for marginalized peoples in this country and I furthermore feel that education can be our best route for progressive social change and uplift.” Tambree noted that she wishes to address injustices related to the imprisonment of minority populations, especially young adults and children who contradict the police. She explained, “My policy proposal for the scholarship addressed mass incarceration. I particularly looked at the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s important because it dispossesses and destroys already underserved communities, and is a part of a larger framework of inequality.” Similarly, Magsaysay plans to attend law school to build a career fighting inequalities at immigration checkpoints, prisons and schools.
In addition to writing letters of recommendation, faculty members had an important role to play in the application process. Kooperman noted, “I rely on faculty to send me the names of students or to send students in to meet with me, even if it is not obvious what the best opportunity is for them.” For example, Professor of Political Science Sidney Plotkin encouraged Carey to apply for the Truman Scholars program. He recalled in an emailed statement, “What impresses me about Cecil Carey beyond the fact of his obvious intelligence, are his keen curiosity, intellectual honesty, his willingness and capacity to look at complicated issues from different angles and, of course, his strong sense of political engagement, particularly in regard to issues of education and inequality.”
Professor of Sociology Carlos Alamo noted, “I’ve had Kali Tambree in several classes and I always came away impressed with the work she does inside and outside the classroom … I expect Kali will one day go on to graduate school and later do some amazing and transformative research, teaching and writing in critical prison studies.”
Kooperman corroborated the faculty recommendations, emphasizing their importance in the competition. She commented, “Kali came to me on a recommendation from Professor Carlos Alamo; our initial conversation was illuminating and inspiring. I followed up with Carlos to let him know just how grateful I was that he sent her my way because I was sure she had unusual promise.”
The faculty recommendations are also a chance for professors to offer assistance and solidarity to students in whom they see promise. Professor of Sociology Erendira Rueda, who recommended Magsaysay for the scholarship, wrote in an emailed statement, “Since low income, first generation college students who grew up in immigrant families don’t always know about the wealth of resources and opportunities available in higher education, I make it a point to advise and mentor students from those backgrounds who end up in my classes.” He continued, “I try to do for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds what my mentors have done for me over the years: I make sure they know that they’ve demonstrated promise, I point them in the direction of funding opportunities and programs that will support their academic and professional aspirations, and I do my best to provide the emotional and logistical supports necessary to get students to apply for programs and fellowships that will help them craft a path through college.”
A broad spectrum of students have a fair chance to succeed in competitive research and study programs. Kooperman remarked, “The strongest applicants are those who come in with particular plans for the future in mind—and then we work together to identify opportunities that could potentially help them realize their goals. Not the other way around, where someone wants a particular fellowship and is trying to fit the mold. There is no mold—scholars and fellows are natural fits for these opportunities. We work with them to communicate their strengths.”
As for this year’s Truman Scholars, the scholarship ensures that they will have a strong chance to realize their public service vision. Tambree said, “I recognize that the society we live in is fundamentally violent and unequal—and I feel a strong obligation to my community.” Carey agreed, “Vassar students must perceive the privileges we have and the violence embedded in comfortable living. My personal vision of public service is to give access to non-dominant narratives and histories to marginalized youth through education so that they can make sense of [themselves] and their communities, and imagine different worlds.”