Kristen Busch and Rodrigo Estrada, third-year students in the College at the University of Chicago, have been awarded prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarships, which provide up to $30,000 for students pursuing careers in public service.
Busch and Estrada are two of 62 students chosen this year for the nationally competitive award from a pool of 773 candidates nominated by 316 colleges and universities. They are among the 11 UChicago students who have earned the award in the past 10 years.
“The College is immensely proud to see Kristen and Rodrigo recognized as public servants by the Truman Foundation,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “They have joined academic accomplishments with a dedication to improving the lives of people in their communities. Their work is a remarkable testament to the impact our students have in public affairs.”
Working toward an equitable future
Busch plans to pursue a joint JD/MPP in graduate school with a focus on economic, tech and disability policy. She hopes to continue studying the economic disparities affecting disabled communities and the contradictory nature of technological innovation.
“Disability is everywhere in the world around us. It inevitably impacts all of us through family members, friends or co-workers, yet it is often absent in our legislation and political discourse,” said Busch, a native of Minneapolis. “Over one in four people has a disability and the number continues to grow, but disabled communities are constantly overlooked and underserved.”
A joint BA/MA student studying economics and international relations, Busch’s dedication to improving the lives of people with disabilities stems from the experiences of her friends and family members with disabilities.
“I am challenged daily to rethink my notions of ableism and my part in making a more accessible world,” said Busch, who first began working with people with disabilities as a tutor in middle school. “While my role has evolved over the years, my belief in an equitable future remains strong, and I plan to devote my career to creating access and equality through public service.”
While at UChicago, Busch has continued to pursue opportunities to support disability justice through academic research, involvement in student groups and activism. She is the co-president of Axis, a disability justice-focused RSO that advocates for accessibility reform on campus and organizes tutoring and events. In response to the 2018 budget cuts in Chicago Public Schools, Busch and two fellow UChicago students founded Open Access, a nonprofit that provides workshops on special education issues and manages an online platform with resources for students with disabilities. In addition to being active in UChicago’s Institute of Politics, Busch also serves on the Office of the Provost’s Accessibility Advisory Board and the Student Government’s Student Accessibility and Disability Advisory Committee.
Busch currently works in medical anthropologist Michele Friedner’s lab researching therapy and communication methods for children who are deaf. Through a remote internship with the U.S. State Department, she also researches disability laws and policies across the globe to identify significant gaps in human rights.
This summer, in addition to an internship with Morgan Stanley’s Public Finance group, Busch will use a scholarship from the Stamps Foundation to research the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on at-risk disabled communities in the United States. Busch has worked at both the state and federal level in public policy, including with the Illinois House Majority Leader, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, the U.S. Department of the Interior and Facebook’s public policy team.
“I owe my growth and development in public service to the people I’ve met at UChicago—from my professors and TAs to other student activists on campus,” said Busch. “They've changed how I view disability justice and equity, as well as shaped my desire to pursue public policy.”
Advocating for border communities
Growing up five miles from the Rio Grande in Texas, Estrada witnessed firsthand the impacts poverty and systemic underdevelopment had on his border community.
“If the looming border fence and inland checkpoints did not serve as a constant reminder of my community’s constricted condition, then the shuttered storefronts and abandoned lots on Main Street prompted me to question how border militarization policies curb regional development,” said Estrada, who is pursuing a joint BA/MA in economics and international relations.
Now, with an eye toward graduate school, the Odyssey Scholar aspires to be an advocate for underserved communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Upon graduation, he plans to pursue a joint JD/PhD in international development, and he hopes to study the causes and consequences of cross-border development and regional integration.
“At a time when border communities like mine are increasingly misunderstood and demonized, I seek to redefine the public’s perception of the border by elevating the region’s uniquely binational, bicultural and bilingual assets,” Estrada said. “The border needs an advocate now more than ever and is increasingly witness to the issues that are coming to define the 21st century.”
Estrada’s passion for service and humanitarian work began in high school when he became a volunteer with the American Red Cross. In Chicago, he has continued his commitment and deep involvement with the organization.
“Coming to UChicago, I did not want my college experience to be limited to the classroom, lab or library but to extend into the greater community through meaningful service opportunities,” he said.
As a lead volunteer for the American Red Cross in Chicago, Estrada and his team have helped over 1,000 asylum seekers, rendering direct aid in the form of food, clothes and medicine, and creating safe passage. Last year Estrada was named to the National Youth Council for the American Red Cross, and he also serves as regional coordinator for the American Red Cross Youth Action Campaign.
On campus, Estrada is a board member and mentor of the Institute of Politics Leaders of Color program. A saxophonist, Estrada channels his passion for music into service as community outreach director and a tutor for the South Side Free Music Program, an initiative aimed at connecting aspiring young musicians from diverse backgrounds with free music lessons.
As a research assistant, Estrada investigates the economics of opioids, studying the impacts of cross-border trade of illicit substances. His intergovernmental experiences include interning for the White House Domestic Policy Council, Office of the Texas Governor, and most recently, in the El Paso County Judge’s Office, where he pushed for innovative changes focused on cooperative economic development. This summer, he will serve as an economic development intern at the Borderplex Alliance in El Paso through the Jeff Metcalf Fellowship Grant for Odyssey Scholars.
The College Center for Research and Fellowships (CCRF) worked with Busch and Estrada for more than six months on their campus application and nomination processes and prepared them for their national interviews. The CCRF provides comprehensive guidance, application support and mentorship to students who pursue prestigious national fellowships like the Truman Scholarship.