AMHERST, Mass. – Joseph Sklut, a junior history major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been awarded a prestigious Truman Scholarship, one of the nation’s top honors for undergraduates.
This year, 60 scholars representing 55 U.S. colleges and universities were selected from among more than 600 applicants for the award given by the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. The merit-based scholarship provides $30,000 to students to attend graduate or professional school to help prepare for careers in government or public service. Truman Scholars participate in leadership development programs and have special opportunities for internships and employment with the federal government. In return, they commit to five to seven years of public service after graduate school.
“This is a real game-changer for me,” says Sklut, who is considering a career with the U.S. State Department or the Foreign Service. “This enhances my ability to gain admittance to some of the top graduate schools like Harvard or Princeton.”
A native of East Bridgewater, Mass., Sklut is pursuing a minor in political science to complement his degree program in history. He is also enrolled in Commonwealth College, the honors college at UMass Amherst.
Sklut is also in his third year with the Massachusetts Air National Guard, serving as a senior airman with the 102nd Intelligence Wing based at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod. Three years ago, Sklut took time off from his studies for National Guard duties to work in the Boston office of U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, where he handled veterans’ affairs for the congressman.
“I’m interested in obtaining a master’s degree in international relations or public policy,” says Sklut, whose interests lean toward Middle East history after taking a class last year about the Ottoman Empire.
As his senior year approaches, Sklut says his decision to attend UMass Amherst has been reaffirmed.
“I love UMass,” he says. “I thought the education would be good, especially with the small honors college. But it’s also an energetic, fun atmosphere where there’s always something to do.”
He also has high praise for the Office of National Scholarship Advisement (ONSA), which helps UMass Amherst students compete for major scholarships such as the Truman. “They were absolutely instrumental,” says Sklut. “They worked with me for months and kept me on the path.”
The Truman competition is rigorous. This year, 601 students from the top quarter of their class submitted 10-page applications, including a 200-word policy statement on a major social problem. About 190 finalists were selected for interviews, where they defended their policy statements before a panel of judges.
In his policy statement, Sklut proposed expanding the State Department as a means to extend American “soft power” around the world. He and five other finalists from Massachusetts schools defended their positions during an all-day session at MIT on March 11. Sklut is the only Truman Scholarship recipient from a Massachusetts college this year and the fourth UMass Amherst student ever to receive the honor.
“I am humbled by the whole process,” he says. “The kids I was up against were from schools like Yale and the University of Chicago.”
Susan Whitbourne, a psychology professor who directs ONSA, organized a gathering at Commonwealth College to break the good news to Sklut.
“When I think to the future and wonder who of the coming generations will lead our country with optimism, determination, fairness and dedication to hard work, I can confidently imagine Joe at the forefront,” said Whitbourne.
Sklut also received a hero’s welcome from his fraternity brothers at Theta Chi, which he calls a “home away from home.” Sklut has also been involved with the Veterans and Service Members Association and served as a senator in the Student Government Association at UMass Amherst.
In May, Sklut will attend the Truman Scholar Leadership Week at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo.