When Utah State University student Madelyn Fife was summoned into President Stan Albrecht’s office, she felt a little bad interrupting what she thought was a meeting, but that changed when she saw a photographer in the room.
Albrecht told her that she won the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, one of the most prestigious national scholarships in the country for college students interested in law and politics, and a USU photographer was there last week to capture the moment. Fife is only the fourth USU student to receive the scholarship in the past 36 years, and she is the only student from Utah to be selected this year, having competed against 775 applicants from 305 institutions for the honor.
“They totally had me fooled,” Fife said Monday in Old Main’s Champ Hall. “It was a special memory I will have with me for a long time.”
Recipients of the Truman Scholarship receive a $30,000 scholarship toward graduate school and the opportunity to participate in professional development programming. Recipients will receive their awards in a ceremony at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum on May 29. The Truman Scholarship was created in 1975 by Congress to honor the nation’s 33rd president.
“The process itself was almost enough of a reward, but moving forward, the Truman Scholarship isn’t just about money; they have a lot of opportunities for scholars to develop these leadership skills and reach their goals to be in public service,” Fife said.
Fife said she looks forward to a trip to Missouri — Truman’s home state — for a leadership conference and later, Washington, D.C., for leadership seminars.
Fife, a 2013 Logan High School graduate, is a junior double majoring in political science and economics. Her long list of activities at USU include Honors student and Huntsman Scholar, a USU leadership program. Fife’s’ dream job is as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Kristine Miller, director of the USU Honors Program, introduced Fife to Albrecht before he made the announcement and spoke about the 21-year-old in a prepared statement.
“Madelyn is an outstanding student who has made the most of every opportunity that has come her way,” Miller said. “Her commitment to educational equity is both local and national. Madelyn wants to change the American educational system for the better, and thus to become exactly the kind of public-service leader that the Truman Foundation seeks to support.”
Shannon Peterson, director of the Huntsman Scholars program, has known Fife since she was a freshman and is seemingly not surprised the foundation that oversees the Truman Scholarship gave it to her.
“I knew she was more than capable of becoming a Truman Scholar. I know how talented she is and I’m glad the committee recognized that as well,” Peterson said. “Madelyn wanted to go after this and I think there are a lot of bright students at USU, but they never apply, so I think this is a testament to Madelyn — she took the risk and put the effort into it.”
Fife said applying for the Truman Scholarship was months in the making. Not only were interviews with the foundation that oversees the scholarship expected, but she also turned in several essays, too.
Fife was tasked with writing a mock policy proposal for the U.S. Attorney General, dealing with what Fife sees as “the nationwide problem” of discriminatory discipline in public schools.
“Disparate impact theory has been successfully relied upon as a legal strategy both in housing and employment, but there’s never been an attempt to use this theory of liability in schools with regards to disciplinary practices,” Fife said. “My proposal was the U.S. Department of Justice could actually bring suit against school districts where you see these really big disparities in disciplinary outcomes across racial groups. In some cases, you have black and Hispanic students being expelled at three times the rate of Caucasian students. Hopefully, a court would say the school district needs to evaluate its strategies.”
Fife said applying for the Truman Scholarship made her think about her career path more than she ever did, but it didn’t change the fact that she wants to be a lawyer.
“Sometimes there’s a negative perception surrounding lawyers and maybe some of that is merited, but I view the law as a way to address problems and precipitate changes,” Fife said. “Look at court cases like Brown (v. Board of Education); that was a big step in our country toward fighting segregation in our schools. Are we perfect now? No. But without that legal spearhead, maybe we wouldn’t see the progress that’s been made.”