Environmental Studies Student Wins 2019 Truman, Udall Scholarships

Wanjiku Gatheru '20 (CAHNR) is one of just 62 students nationwide to receive the award, which is presented to undergraduate students who have devoted themselves to public service. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
Wanjiku Gatheru '20 (CAHNR) is one of just 62 students nationwide to receive the award, which is presented to undergraduate students who have devoted themselves to public service. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru ’20 (CAHNR), a junior majoring in environmental studies with a minor in global studies, has been named a 2019 Truman Scholar by The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation and a 2019 Udall Scholar by the Udall Foundation. She is the first student in UConn’s history to win these two prestigious national awards in the same year.

The Truman award, given to just 62 students nationwide this year, is presented to undergraduate students who have devoted themselves to public service, and involves a rigorous, multi-stage selection process.

The Udall Scholarship – awarded to college sophomores and juniors for leadership, public service, and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or to the environment – was presented to just 55 students from 50 colleges and universities this year. Gatheru competed in the scholarship’s environmental category, which selected 38 of the 55 scholars nationwide for its 2019 class.

“I have never considered a path outside of public service,” Gatheru says. “I come from a family full of healthcare providers, so it makes sense that I have always been drawn to serving people through public service.”

Prior to arriving at UConn, Gatheru spent a year in Thailand as a Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Scholar of the U.S. State Department, an experience that solidified her commitment to culturally competent conservation. She has completed internships with the City of Hartford’s Office of Sustainability and the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network.

On campus, Gatheru serves as vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), and is the student co-chair of the 2019 University-wide Metanoia, pursuing the theme of “Youth for Change.” She is a 2018 UC-Santa Cruz Doris Duke Conservation Scholar and a 2018 Newman Civic Fellow, and is motivated to connect grassroots movements to institutions of power. She was a lead organizer in Connecticut’s first Youth Climate Lobby Day, a United Nations (UN) Global Health Fellow, a delegate at the 2017 UN Climate Change Discussions, a founding member of the President’s Council on Race and Diversity, and played a critical role in the successful implementation of an environmental literacy general education requirement at UConn.

Gatheru, who is from Pomfret, Connecticut, ultimately plans to pursue a joint JD and master’s degree, and hopes to dedicate her career to public service through empowering and supporting culturally competent, community-based environmental solutions – particularly focusing on educating, informing, and involving disenfranchised communities of color in decisions that impact their environmental and social health.

“While communities of color and low-income communities are often at the forefront of environmental injustice, these individuals are largely underrepresented in decision-making on climate, clean air, and transportation,” she says. “As a lawyer, I plan to work to bridge this divide by actively engaging front-line communities in the decisions that impact their everyday lives.”

Gatheru also previously mentored students as a teacher’s assistant in the African American Cultural Center, and currently serves as a peer research ambassador at the Office of Undergraduate Research, and promotes campus sustainability as an intern at the Office of Environmental Policy. She hosts pop-up food closets as co-founder of the UConn Access to Food Effort (UCAFE), which seeks to address food insecurity and student hunger on campus.

“As the proud daughter of two Kenyan immigrants, I am incredibly aware of the sacrifices that my parents have made to ensure that my siblings and I have the opportunity to live a life beyond survival,” she says. “This truth grounds me in everything I do, and motivates me to use my education to uplift those who may not have access to the opportunities that I have had.”

Gatheru is UConn’s seventh Truman Scholar, and she joins last year’s winner – Akshayaa Chittibabu ’19 (CLAS) – as UConn’s first consecutive winners of this award in more than 30 years. She is also UConn’s seventh Udall Scholar, and the first Udall Scholar from UConn since 2016.

“On behalf of UConn Nation, I want to congratulate Wawa for this outstanding achievement,” says President Susan Herbst of Gatheru’s Truman award. “She typifies the Husky spirit in her academic life, her very engaged community involvement, and through her dedication to public service. We are so proud of her. We are also delighted that the Truman Foundation has recognized a UConn undergraduate in two consecutive years – something that has not happened in more than three decades – and that three UConn nominees were scholarship finalists in a highly competitive field of candidates this year.”

“We are very proud of Wawa’s leadership and accomplishments,” says Indrajeet Chaubey, dean and director of UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources. “Her passion about addressing food security and environmental sustainability is commendable, as these are grand challenges our world faces today. We need student leaders like Wawa to address these complex challenges.”

Vin Moscardelli, director of UConn’s Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships – which coordinates the process through which the University nominates students for prestigious, competitive awards, including the Truman and Udall scholarships – says that from day one, Gatheru embraced the challenge of building and explaining the “almost super-human” record of accomplishments as a scholar, leader, and public servant necessary for the Truman Scholar selection process, something with which even the most qualified applicants often struggle.

“As a scholar, her record is impeccable,” Moscardelli says. “In all of her endeavors, Wawa has demonstrated the versatility to move seamlessly back and forth between the outside world of activism and the inside world of policy and rule-making. She is a bridge builder and a connector at a moment when those attributes are in short supply among our leaders.”

Listen to Gatheru discussing her UConn experiences with Julie Bartucca of the UConn360 podcast:

 

The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation was created by Congress in 1975 to be the nation’s living memorial to President Harry S. Truman. Recipients of the Truman Scholarship receive a $30,000 scholarship toward graduate school and the opportunity to participate in professional development programming to help prepare them for careers in public service leadership. In 2019, 346 colleges and universities nominated 840 students for the scholarship. UConn was one of only 13 institutions to have three or more of its nominated students advance as finalists for this year’s award.

Gatheru and this year’s winners will receive their awards in a ceremony at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum on May 26. For more information about the Truman Scholarship, visit www.truman.gov.

The Udall Foundation awards scholarships, fellowships, and internships for study in fields related to the environment and to Native Americans and Alaska Natives in fields related to healthcare and Tribal public policy, and connects youth from underserved communities to the Nation’s public lands and natural resources to foster greater understanding, appreciation, stewardship, and enjoyment of those lands and resources through photography, positive outdoor experiences, and environmental education. Each scholarship provides up to $7,000 for the scholar’s junior or senior year.

The 2019 Udall Scholars will assemble August 6-11 in Tucson, Arizona, to meet one another and program alumni; learn more about the Udall legacy of public service; and interact with community leaders in environmental fields, Tribal health care, and governance. For more information about the Udall Foundation, visit udall.gov.