Claflin University junior politics and justice studies major Emmanuel Pressley has been on a journey since before he even matriculated to Claflin. He just didn’t know quite where it was leading him.
Pressley became Claflin’s first-ever Harry S. Truman Scholar on Wednesday – and the only one from South Carolina this year. The Truman is a highly competitive, merit-based award offered to U.S. college students who want to go to graduate school in preparation for a career in public service.
A celebrated prize in its own right, the Truman Scholarship (known also as a “Baby Rhodes”) is also considered a steppingstone to other prestigious awards, such as the Rhodes Scholarship and the Marshall Scholarship. Winners of Truman Scholarships in their junior year very often return in their senior year of college to compete for the Rhodes and/or Marshall Scholarships. Many win.
“The University congratulates Emmanuel on this high achievement,” Claflin President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale said. “His selection as a Truman Scholar is no small feat, and it also represents the caliber of students Claflin University is committed to recruit and retain. We are confident Emmanuel will live up to the expectations of a recipient of the Truman award.”
Pressley, who graduated as valedictorian of Hemingway High School in 2011, is one of 59 new Truman Scholars – mostly college juniors – who were selected from among 655 candidates nominated by 293 colleges and universities. He joins the ranks of many U.S. leaders already established in the field of public service, individuals such as Dr. Susan E. Rice, U.S. national security adviser and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; George Stephanopoulos, former Clinton adviser and current ABC journalist; and Janet Napolitano, former U.S. head of national security and former governor of Arizona, among many others.
“I’ve always been involved in the community,” the Hemingway, S.C., native said, adding that his love of helping others stems from watching his mother, Jennifer Pressley, do the same.
“She’s a nurse, and she’s always been really involved in our community, whether it’s helping people out at our church or volunteering with the fire department,” Pressley continued. “She’s always been involved, and I’ve had many years, while growing up, to look at that work ethic and look at how she was involved, and to just emulate that in my life.”
In addition to joining a network of like-minded public servants, Truman Scholars receive up to $30,000 for their graduate studies. Pressley’s goal is to obtain a master’s degree in public policy and then attend law school, with the hopes of one day becoming a civil rights attorney and opening a nonprofit organization, which he has named “Second Bridges,” that advocates for and assists nonviolent felons in rehabilitating and transitioning smoothly back into society.
“It feels absolutely amazing to be named a Truman Scholar,” Pressley said. “When I first matriculated to Claflin and Mrs. (Alice Carson) Tisdale told me about the National Merit Scholarships, with the Truman being one of the most prestigious, I immediately wanted to apply for it.
“For me, the Truman truly embodies what it means to leave Claflin better than I found it, and just blossoming into that visionary leader that Dr. Tisdale always talks about. It’s truly a blessing.”
Pressley, a member of the Alice Carson Tisdale Honors College, has been actively involved at Claflin since arriving on campus in fall 2011. He has served as a class senator since his freshman year, and has been appointed to the Honors Council all three years at Claflin. He has volunteered with the local Boys and Girls Club, Longwood Plantation Assisted Living Community and as a tutor on campus.
The summer after his freshman year, Pressley interned for the Family Court Division of the 16th Circuit Court in Jackson County, Mo., as part of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars Program.
The next summer, he took part in the Ronald H. Brown Prep Program for College Students and interned at the Queens County Supreme Court in Queens, N.Y. While in New York, he also interned with Common Cause New York, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with the citizens of New York in holding their elected officials accountable for their actions.
Last fall, Pressley studied abroad in Florianopolis, Brazil, where he took part in the Culture, Portuguese Language, Business and Courses with Locals program at the Universidade do Sul de Santa Catarina.
“Study abroad really shaped my perspective, when it comes to diversity and the importance of diversity in our workforce, in our schools,” he said.
Pressley said such experiences have been enriching and rewarding – and each has pushed him even closer to his goal of becoming a Truman Scholar, and, ultimately, his life goals.
“When I was in high school, my older brother got into trouble with the law, and just before I started college, he was getting released. It was very hard for him to rehabilitate or at least transition smoothly back into society,” he said. “That’s basically what my nonprofit is going to be about. I want it to combat felony disenfranchisement laws, but also advocate for community outreach in order to connect incarcerated individuals who are trying to rehabilitate back into society with employers, housing opportunities and governmental assistance so that they can become productive and contributing citizens.
“I have found that many of the rights that were fought for during the civil rights movement … are stripped when you become a felon because of the labeling and the stigma that comes with being a felon.”
This summer, Pressley will take part in the 2014 Truman Scholars Leadership Week at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., where this year’s scholars will receive their awards in a special ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., on May 25. He will also take part in an intense 10-week LSAT preparation program at the St. John's University School of Law in Queens, N.Y.
“I have an internship waiting for me after my senior year at the Washington Summer Institute, which is a branch of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation,” Pressley said.
Becoming Claflin’s first Truman Scholar is almost an opportunity that Pressley let pass him by.
He was well on his way to having his application completed when his laptop literally crashed – on the floor of his host family’s home in Brazil.
“I lost everything, and I was almost finished with the process of applying for the Truman Scholarship,” Pressley said. “So from October until I returned to Claflin in early January, I stopped everything … I stopped doing work towards it. I had lost all of my research, I had lost all of my essays – and we’re talking about months of revising, emailing back and forth … it’s not something that you can just do overnight.
“But when I got here, I kicked into gear. That’s when I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this.’ I started it, and I don’t like starting something and not finishing it. It’s not a very good trait.”
And the long process of working and writing and researching and waiting and preparing for the interview – it all paid off for Pressley.
“There were many nights when I wanted to give up,” he said. “But I’m glad I did it.
“I told Dr. Tisdale that the award – and don’t get me wrong, the $30,000 is great – but the reward, for me, was the experience, because in the process, they ask you questions that you don’t often times ask yourself. It’s truly the process of applying and interviewing for the Truman Scholarship that was so rewarding.”
Many people helped him along the way, Pressley said, adding that he would be remiss if he didn’t acknowledge their guidance and assistance in helping him on the road to becoming a Truman Scholar: President Tisdale, Mrs. Tisdale, Dr. Roosevelt Ratliff, Dr. Deborah L. Laufersweiler-Dwyer, Ms. Susan Lerner, Dr. Carlton Long, Dr. Millicent Brown, Dr. Caroletta Shuler Ivey, Dr. Leonard Pressley, Ms. Pricilla Anderson, Mr. Devin Randolph and Mr. Drexel Ball. Whether it was writing a recommendation letter or helping him prepare for his interview on April 2 at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga., each of them were a godsend in the process, he said.
“And I just wanted to say that my success is not about me,” Pressley continued. “I try to remind myself that my success is not about me. Essentially, it’s God acting within me to make me a vessel to help others. I’m thankful and highly appreciative for the people who have helped me throughout this process, but I give all glory and honor to God. My success is not because of my own ability – it’s because of God.”
To those coming behind him who also have aspirations to aim high and reach for what may seem impossible, Pressley has this advice.
“This is one of Dr. Tisdale’s five key points that I keep in mind all the time – you have to raise your self-expectancy, because the world is a big world, and you can do some amazing things,” he said. “So I would challenge all students – my peers, everyone and anyone who desires to attend Claflin or pursue their dreams or simply make a difference in their world … we all need to raise our self-expectancy and put forth the effort to maximize our potential.”
And be passionate about your goals, he added.
“You, me, anyone must be passionate, must know why they want to do it, and it must show,” he said. “You must have your passion, and know where it’s stemming from.
“I’m extremely excited about what the future holds.”
The Truman Scholarship Foundation was established by Congress in 1975 as the federal memorial to the nation’s 33rd president. There have been 2,965 Truman Scholars since the first awards were made in 1977.
What is the Truman Scholarship?
The Truman is a highly competitive, merit-based award offered to U.S. citizens and U.S. nationals from Pacific Islands who want to go to graduate school in preparation for a career in public service. The scholarship offers:
- Recognition of outstanding potential as a leader in public service;
- Affirmation of values and ideals;
- Enhanced access to highly competitive graduate institutions;
- Access to Scholar programs such as Truman Scholars Leadership Week, the Summer Institute and various Truman Fellows Programs;
- Membership in a community of persons devoted to helping others and to improving the world; and,
- Up to $30,000 to apply toward graduate study in the U.S. or abroad in a wide variety of fields.
Who are the Truman Scholars?
They are persons who have been recognized by the Truman Scholarship Foundation as future “change agents.” They have the passion, intellect, and leadership potential that in time should enable them to improve the ways that public entities – be they government agencies, nonprofit organizations, public and private educational institutions, or advocacy organizations – serve the public good.
Who is eligible to receive a Truman Scholarship?
U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals who are college or university students with junior-level academic standing and who wish to attend professional or graduate school to prepare for careers in government or the nonprofit and advocacy sectors where they will improve the ways these institutions work. Residents of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana must have senior-level standing.
Information from www.truman.gov