Katelyn Campbell ’17 Wins Prestigious Truman Scholarship

April 21, 2016
 Katelyn Campbell ’17, Center, Awarded Prestigious Truman Scholarship

Katelyn Campbell '17 has won a prestigious Truman Scholarship, the first Wellesley student to do so since 2011. The scholarships, which serve as a living memorial to President Harry S. Truman, provide recipients with $30,000 for graduate school and professional training to help prepare them for careers in public service leadership. Campbell was one of 54 winners chosen from a field of 775 candidates, who were nominated by 305 colleges and universities.

An American studies major, Campbell grew up in rural West Virginia. She made national news as a senior in high school by speaking out publicly and contacting the ACLU about a religiously motivated lecture on abstinence organized by the principal of her school. In response, he threatened to contact Wellesley to advise that Campbell's offer of admission be rescinded. The College, of course, welcomed her with open arms.

Since then, Campbell has continued to work every summer for school choice, safe, clean water, and greater access to birth control in her home state. She is also a leader on campus, serving as an executive senator in college government and as a sexual health counselor.

"The fact that I was even chosen as a finalist, much less a winner, for the Truman is still sinking in," said Campbell.

Faculty and staff who have worked with Campbell, a ninth-generation West Virginian, shared her delight, but not her surprise. "Katelyn is unwavering in her pursuit of improving the health and well-being of those in her community, both in West Virginia and here at Wellesley College," said Claudia Trevor-Wright, assistant director of health education. "She is not afraid to use her voice for the advancement of others, but she also knows when to listen."

Campbell's major advisor, Paul Fisher, associate professor of American studies, agrees. "In any paper or class discussion, Katelyn has pursued the perspectives and experiences of marginalized or oppressed people," he said. "She combines a highly developed knowledge of American history—and especially West Virginia history—with a commitment to real-life, on-the-ground social issues."

For Campbell, the lessons learned from her major have been crucial to her personal and professional growth. "I knew it would make me a better person," she said. "American studies empowers you to ask deep questions about the roots of everything around you. It has served as a magnificent backdrop to the social justice work I do."

Other skills she has developed at Wellesley—writing, planning, and grant-writing—have also made her more effective in her work for organizations such as WV FREE, a reproductive health and justice organization; Create West Virginia, a forum for community-driven social entrepreneurship; and the Appalachian Queer Film Festival.

Yet in class and in daily interactions, she said, storytelling is often the best way to promote a greater understanding of the struggles and inequities rural Americans face. "Many of my Wellesley friends are shocked to hear that I drove 30 minutes each day to a magnet high school so I could take AP classes, or that the West Virginia studies textbook I used in my eighth-grade class was already well over 20 years old when I first started using it," she said. "They are also shocked to hear that my elementary school now holds close to 700 students because of consolidation and overcrowding. But, in comparison to many other more rural places in West Virginia, my school experience was phenomenal."

At Wellesley, Campbell said she appreciates the College's emphasis on working for change, a message that echoes values she learned from her parents and grandparents.

"Whenever I had a complaint about any small thing growing up—whether it was a peer being rude, a pair of shoes I ordered not showing up on time, or an issue with something happening in my community—my dad would always respond, 'Well, Katie, pen a letter.' That's a practice I've taken with me into adulthood, and it has formed the basis for most of my social justice work," she said.

Campbell continued, "Both of my parents and all of my extended family have always pushed me to think for myself about the meaning of fairness, but that practice of sitting down to distill your frustrations into something thoughtful that can be understood by your adversary has proved an invaluable resource to me as a standard for how I begin to talk about issues. Because if you never tell the offending person or body that something's wrong, they can never begin to react."

When asked to describe her approach as a leader, Campbell gave a surprising answer. "Maybe it's because I'm Southern, but I like to have fun," she said. "I like to know the name of every person I'm working with and a little about their life story, and to spend time with people I’m collaborating with thinking about what matters to all of us on a base level so we can overcome our differences to get together for collective action."

Those qualities make Campbell a worthy choice for the Truman Scholarship, said Elizabeth Mandeville, director of fellowship programs for the Center for Work and Service. "In every way, Katelyn embodies the spirit and expectations of the Truman Scholarship. Her tenacity, her humanity, her intelligence, and her pluck have all influenced her ability to lead and serve her community in a meaningful and enduring way," she said. "Katelyn has already accomplished enormous good in her life, and we at Wellesley are so very proud of all that she has achieved. I can't wait to see what she does next."

Campbell is proud as well, she said, but not just of herself. "When President Bottomly notified me that I'd won, my immediate reaction was to flash back to all of the stories both my parents and grandparents have shared with me throughout my life about their struggles of growing up in mining communities in West Virginia," she said. "For me, this feels so much more like an award for them, to recognize the triumph of generations of back-breaking labor in the coal mines and areas surrounding them."