Meet UChicago's 2014 Truman Scholars

Q&A with UChicago's four Truman Scholars about their reaction, background, and direction after college.
Truman Scholar
Photo by: 
Gordon Lew, College Visual Media Editor, Class of 2015
I think we're better together than we are alone, and I've tried to contribute to the many efforts to build a stronger, broader UChicago community...
Erin Simpson
Truman Scholar, Class of 2015

For the first time in University of Chicago history, the College celebrated four winners of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, bringing to 34 the total number of UChicago students who have been named Truman Scholars since the competitive program was established in 1975. Each of the four winners—Yusal Al-Jarani, Ava Benezra, Andrea Haidar, and Erin Simpson, all members of the Class of 2015—will receive up to $30,000 to support their graduate education. In this piece, the College Media Team asks the four Truman Scholars about their reaction, background, and direction after college. (For more information, check out the article on the UChicago FROGS site.)


Yusel Al-Jarani

Major: Political Science

Q: How did you react when you found out that you had won?

A: I was overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude. Most of all, I was ecstatic that all four of us from UChicago received the award. I cannot think of more deserving individuals than Andrea, Ava, and Erin.

Q: What drove you to accomplish the sorts of things that ended up qualifying you for this scholarship?

A: My family struggled with personal finances when I was younger. I think that planted the seeds that would develop into my interest in creating greater economic opportunity for people in need. You see that inspiration manifested in my work with Phoenix Development Fund, Moneythink, and the Cafe Careers project in Student Government. My Libyan heritage inspired me to spend time abroad, which is something you see in my U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship to study Arabic in Jordan. I hope to combine those two sets of interests to effect positive change for my community moving forward.

Q: What is the most exciting class you've taken or experience you've had at UChicago?

A: It's a tie between Robert Pape and John Mearsheimer's respective courses on American grand strategy. [Professor] Pape is at the forefront of research on terrorism and unilateralism, while [Professor] Mearsheimer founded an entire theory of international politics. As an American of Libyan descent, I grew interested in international politics from a very young age, and you could not ask for a better, more honest introduction to U.S. military strategy overseas—its successes and pitfalls—than these two courses.

Q: What advice would you give to other motivated students who may consider applying for major scholarships or fellowships?

A: There is no list of extracurriculars or internships that you can check off to make yourself more competitive for these scholarships. Reflect on where your true passions lie, work hard at them, and then apply for the scholarship(s) that will best position you to further those interests. If you care about public service, for example, the Truman Scholarship may be the one for you. Those who are more interested in STEM fields will find that there are other scholarships that cater to those interests, such as the Churchill Scholarship.

Q: When you start the graduate study associated with your scholarship, what is the most important lesson or experience from UChicago that you're going to bring with you?

A: Stay curious, critical, and committed. Stay curious so that you are always asking questions. Stay critical so that you are able to discern fact from fiction in answers to those questions. Stay committed so that you will take what you learn from those questions and answers, and use that information to better the world around you. That is the life of the mind—the UChicago mantra.

Q: What are you hoping to learn or gain from the experience that the scholarship provides?

A: I hope to better understand how small businesses and markets function so that I will be better positioned to help businesses in the Middle East and North Africa create jobs for youth. I believe that this will make the region more peaceful and the world more prosperous and secure in the long term.


Ava Benezra

Major: Law, Letters, & Society

Q: How did you react when you found out that you had won?

A: So much excitement! It was so incredibly lovely to find out that all four of us had received it. And for the University to plan the surprise party, and invite so many of the people who helped us get there, made the day just that much better.

Q: What drove you to accomplish the sorts of things that ended up qualifying you for this scholarship?

A: I think people sometimes wonder why I, as a white woman, have always been so invested in criminal justice and police reform. I have never been stopped by the police and, if anything, people who look like me have historically benefited from the racism in, for example, trends in incarceration for drug crime. But through the work I have done it has been made clear to me that our nation has something akin to an apartheid justice system, whereby what you look like and where you live is entirely determinative of the treatment you get under the law. And I want this country to be better than that! Moreover, the hurt and disappointment that students I work with feel, when police stop them and assume criminality, are relatable emotions—I have had times when I've felt misjudged by those I've looked up to.  

Q: What advice would you give to other motivated students who may consider applying for major scholarships or fellowships?

A: Do it! Even the process of focusing myself to articulate my goals and ambitions, as well as write extensively about my past, was useful for me in a way. Besides, the scholarship advisers have some really good tips for interviewing that I'm sure will help me in the future!

Q: What are you hoping to learn or gain from the experience that the scholarship/fellowship provides?

A: I'm really excited to learn from all of the other scholarship recipients! Even in the final round of my interview I felt like the students I was with had so much to teach me. We all specialize in different areas and see such different ways of pursuing change, so I'm eager to learn about the experiences of everyone else and become a part of such an interesting community.


Andrea Haidar

Major: Sociology

Q: How did you react when you found out that you had won?

A: My immediate reaction was overwhelming gratitude, happiness, and surprise. I found out that I received the Truman Scholarship along with my three peers and close friends, Erin Simpson, Yusef Al-Jarani, and Ava Benezra. It has been a joy to support each other through the application and interview process, and it feels very special that we will also share what comes next. The kind words of support and encouragement that I have received from my mentors, family, and friends remind me how indebted I am to them for helping me attain this great honor.

Q: What drove you to accomplish the sorts of things that ended up qualifying you for this scholarship?

A: My involvement in community work at the University of Chicago began with a very meaningful conversation at the Community Service Center. Coming to UChicago, I knew that I wanted my education to extend beyond the classroom. I knew that I wanted to learn from this great city, that I wanted to learn from and contribute to its many communities—but I did not know how. I made an appointment at the UCSC to talk with Trudi Langendorf about volunteer opportunities, and she sat with me for over an hour to talk about all of the different ways I could get involved. I decided to try my hand at mentoring youth in Little Village through Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE). Since that conversation, I have been motivated to continue seeking out opportunities to apply my interests and skills, to open my ears and listen.

Q: What is the most exciting class you've taken or experience you've had at UChicago?

A: I am most excited about the relationships I have formed since I have been here. It has been exciting to learn from and collaborate with all the passionate people I have met both on and off campus. On campus, I have gotten to work with brilliant and passionate people to accomplish so many different ends: mentoring youth, teaching peers about social justice issues in the city, even dancing in a cultural show. Off campus, I have had the great privilege of working in communities such as Little Village and South Chicago. I am thankful for the relationships I have formed with individuals who fight every day for change and social justice in their local communities.

Q: What advice would you give to other motivated students who may consider applying for major scholarships or fellowships?

A: I would advise students to first think critically about the experiences, relationships, and values in their life that have led them to seek out the privileges and responsibilities conferred by a given scholarship. Make sure you want it and that you are willing to put in the hours that the application process takes. Understand that you could fail, but don't be afraid to try. Know that regardless of whether you win the fellowship or not, you can really learn a lot about yourself in the process.

Q: When you start the graduate study associated with your scholarship, what is the most important lesson or experience from UChicago that you're going to bring with you?

A: UChicago has certainly taught me to work hard, to think critically, to engage with those around me and the work they do. I think these skills will serve me well as I pursue my master's degree in social work. I am so excited that the Truman Scholarship will allow me to continue my graduate studies at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration.


Erin Simpson

Major: Public Policy Studies

Q: How did you react when you found out that you had won?

A: I was so surprised and thrilled that I just sort of broke out laughing. Looking around the room of people who had been so supportive of me through this process, I was profoundly grateful. It was appropriate to celebrate with the mentors and friends who also worked very hard to help us make the most of the opportunity.

Q: What drove you to accomplish the sorts of things that ended up qualifying you for this scholarship?

A: Coming from a close-knit community, I was deeply troubled by the structural inequalities that divided Chicago. Like many, I wanted to help do my small part, but wasn't quite sure how to combat the macro forces that were bearing down on family, friends, and communities that I cared about. My work on foreclosure prevention initiatives and housing organizing in Auburn Gresham and Chatham got me thinking about the interdisciplinary challenges of community revitalization and how we can put the power back in the hands of local entities that are doing the most meaningful work. Living with so many talented students, I've worked to create opportunities for them to use those abilities to support community organizations while also building relationships and expanding their concept of community. I've been lucky to work with the UCSC Service Match program, the YWCA, and the IOP to help create ways for students to participate in the place they live through service and to recognize that person-to-person exchange is truly an effective way for communities to deal with those macro problems. In the end, I think we're better together than we are alone, and I've tried to contribute to the many efforts to build a stronger, broader UChicago community.

Q: What advice would you give to other motivated students who may consider applying for major scholarships or fellowships?

A: Dig deep, y'all. I would rather have written 10 policy briefs than a single personal essay; but in the end, that's the information that really helps make your application connect with the readers.  

Q: When you start the graduate study associated with your scholarship, what is the most important lesson or experience from UChicago that you're going to bring with you?

A: Like many, the important thing for me was not learning the answers, but how to ask the question. Both through academic work and sitting in living rooms throughout Chicago talking to people about their communities, I've come to appreciate that the best way to learn is by questioning, listening, and challenging your own assumptions about a subject in order to be open to the full spectrum of possibility.

To read interviews with past recipients of major scholarships and fellowships, check out our album on the UChicago College Facebook page.

Tagged: scholarships, Truman Scholarship, Awards