Last February, on Saturday the 25th at about noon, I failed. I lost. It was the kind of failure that follows you around and sits on your shoulders like a backpack filled with bricks. I had spent the last six months writing and drafting and redrafting my application for the Truman Scholarship, a prestigious award to help pay for graduate school geared towards students interested in public service. They told me I didn’t make the cut into their finalist pool and I felt totally devastated. I felt like they didn’t just reject my application, they rejected me, my values, my future goals, and the impact I wanted to make in the world. Even though I felt this way I knew that applying for the Truman was one of the best things I had done in college. It taught me three big lessons: deep down everyone (even me) can be a good writer, introspection is an important skill to develop, and there are lots of potential future paths that can make you happy. Self-discovery is useful, even if it doesn’t always win you the grand prize.
As far as applications go, Truman is a behemoth: pages of personal information followed by 9 essays on topics ranging from personal statements to policy memos. Before Truman I had never tried to explain how I feel about music or why I think education is transformative in 1500 characters or less. Luckily with the help of Kelly Thornburg, the Honors Scholar Development Director, I was able to turn my drafts into coherent polished narratives that said exactly what I felt and no more. Even though I don’t consider myself a writer, by the end my application was totally representative of my thoughts and feelings in that moment. I had distilled what was in my head onto the page, even though I was convinced I couldn’t. To this day my writing is clearer, more concise, and more impactful that it was before.
When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking; not about class or work, but about myself. I really asked myself where I wanted to go, and how I could use my life to make others’ more meaningful. It’s not often that we’re forced to think about such big topics and really come up with solutions. This is not always easy, but it is always worth it. This introspective skill continues to serve me well as I plan for my graduation in May. If you never ask yourself what you really want, you’ll never know the answer.
I started the Truman process thinking I would finish my degree and then get out into the schools to start teaching. After a few years I would return to school and get a Master’s in something, and then get back to teaching. I had always had an interest in policy and public service, but I didn’t see how that could fit with the path I was on. Truman opened my eyes to all of the possibilities that exist outside of becoming a music teacher. Maybe I’ll become a principal or a school board member, maybe I’ll lobby state and local governments to fund music education programs, or maybe I’ll start a community choir in a neighborhood that doesn’t have music in school. I might not do any of these things, but without Truman I never would have realized that my degree doesn’t limit me to being a choir director for the rest of my life. Instead of being a music teacher, I’ll be a public servant.
When students ask me about Truman the first question is, “Do you wish you had won?” followed by, “Was it worth it?” The answers to both questions are yes. Without Truman I would have been too afraid to really explore what was outside the path I was on. I wouldn’t be as good of a writer and I wouldn’t be as honest with myself had I never practiced these skills. My application wasn’t good enough for the Truman foundation; by their criteria I failed. However, without this application I never would have been able to improve my writing and know myself as I do now. In my eyes, I’ve succeeded.
Written by: Ben Ross, Honors Student and Peer Mentor