Truman Scholar Credits Connections with Personal Success
The results are in, and Kunal Malhotra ’07 (political science/history) is among this year’s prestigious crop of Truman Scholars. The national award, presented by the Harry S. Truman Foundation, annually recognizes about 80 college juniors with exceptional leadership potential who are committed to careers in government, the nonprofit or advocacy sectors, education or elsewhere in public service. It also provides financial support for graduate study, leadership training, and fellowship with other students who are committed to making a difference through public service. Malhotra joins other political science majors, Jesse French ’06, who won last year, and Christine Solt ’92, who is now a partner in the Boston law firm Choate Hall & Stewart.
Malhotra came to the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst from Fairfax, Virginia. “I wanted to experience new people and places,” he recalls, having lived in the sprawling metropolitan Washington suburb nearly his entire life. “I had this starry-eyed image of small-town New England.” But Malhotra’s preconceived notions were “drastically incorrect—very much so for the better.” He remembers the first days on campus, having that “lost” feeling in a mass of some 20,000 other college kids. “But as I settled in,” he explains, “I began to make connections and build networks of friends and acquaintances, the campus began to grow smaller every day.” Nowhere is that more evident than in his academic career.
Part of the Political Science Talent Advancement Program (TAP) as a freshman, Malhotra took advantage of small class sizes and living with other students in the program. “In this unique learning community I formed close connections to my teachers and peers.” But life took a drastic turn just before semester’s end when Malhotra suffered a life-threatening accident. He found himself hospitalized for several weeks, followed by months of gruesome recovery to regain mobility. He did manage, somehow, to eliminate the "incompletes," and by summertime, he was taking some catch-up courses and participated in an internship at the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental lobbyist that facilitates interest in public policy and environmental issues. “Through this experience, I learned the power of faith in self, family, friends and resiliency to go on when things get tough. I took them for granted before my accident.”
Back at UMass Amherst, Malhotra found that making connections is not limited to small programs like TAP. Case in point: taking John Brigham’s huge Introduction to Constitutional Law class. “Despite being in a large, impersonal lecture hall,” Malhotra explains, “Professor Brigham was tenacious about getting to know every student. Eventually the 100-person lecture transformed into what seemed like a much smaller class where everyone knew each other. This happens often at UMass Amherst, despite its size—I had the same experience with Professor Jeffrey Sedgwick (political science) and Professor Daniel Gordon (history), and others. And I’ll add that friends at much smaller schools often complain of distant and isolated faculty. Professors here challenge students to think in new and different ways, and many create individual dialogues on course material. It’s easy for any student, no matter how hard they work, to get tripped from time to time with challenging material. Professors are eager to help.”
Malhotra has wanted to be a lawyer for as long as he can remember, so his plan is to attend law school after graduation while also pursuing a master’s degree in public policy. “I am very interested in both intellectual property and environmental issues, and I hope these advanced degrees will facilitate a career in public interest law,” he says. “Everything that I have accomplished—and will,” Malhotra adds, “is a product of those who have been there for me every step of the way. And many of these wonderful people I was fortunate enough to meet during my time at UMass Amherst. I think some of the campus’s greatest advantages are actually things that some might view as detriments, such as the large student body and relative distance from major cities. But the diversity in attitudes, race, socio-economics, and people is truly priceless. And the pace of life in the Five College and surrounding areas in unique. A lot of schools often create a ‘cookie-cutteresque feel, but at UMass Amherst I have found a marketplace of ideas and attitudes that put it in a league of its own.”
Of Malhotra, Professor John Brigham, says, “He is thoughtful and fun, self deprecating and distinguished, quiet yet forceful—a man of many contradictions. His reaction to winning the Truman was perfect—saying essentially that with all the deserving candidates, his selection was ‘simply ridiculous.’ I suppose there is something ridiculous about working so hard for something you have so little chance of winning, and then actually winning it.”
April 3, 2006