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Public Policy Undergrad Wins Truman Scholarship

Junior Becomes 10th Terp Honored for Leadership Potential

By Megan Campbell

Public Policy student Sawa Kamara

While juggling her studies, parenthood and a commitment to advocating for dignified housing for all people, junior Sawa Kamara won a Truman Scholarship, the nation's most selective honor for underclassmen headed for government or nonprofit careers.

Photo courtesy of the Office of Undergraduate Studies

A University of Maryland junior who immigrated from Sierra Leone at age 8 and became a local community advocate and grassroots organizer has been awarded a Truman Scholarship, the nation’s most selective award for underclassmen who demonstrate exceptional leadership potential, a commitment to a career in government or the nonprofit sector, and academic excellence.

Sawa Kamara, a public policy major, is the 10th Terp to earn the honor memorializing President Harry S Truman; it comes with up to $30,000 in funding for graduate studies, leadership training, career counseling and special internship and fellowship opportunities within the federal government. This year, 58 Truman Scholars were selected from 705 candidates nominated by 275 colleges and universities nationwide.

“My undergraduate education here in College Park at the School of Public Policy has been instrumental in shaping my passions, dreams and ideas into a blueprint for future success,” said Kamara. “I’m excited and humbled at the same time to have been given the assistive lift of the Truman Scholarship. I believe I will always look back on this honor as a stepping-stone to my most treasured and passionate goals.”

Kamara spent her early childhood in a conflict zone, then left behind her immediate family for a new life with relatives in Prince George’s County. Today, she has a 7-year-old daughter and works full-time as a community health worker at the Institute for Public Health Innovation, focusing on mostly low-income patients with heart failure, all while juggling her studies at UMD. She’s proud to have maintained a 3.3 GPA after having to abruptly withdraw from classes several years ago when her father died.

The rodents, roaches and trash in her first apartment complex spurred her first foray into local activism: a years-long, successful push for passage of a Prince George’s County initiative to impose fines and penalties on landlords in noncompliance.

She helped start a civic association in Takoma Park, then secured a $75,000 revitalization grant used to turn an outdoor eyesore into a community space with landscaping and a mural. She has served on the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Food Co-op board and has volunteered with the local nonprofit Small Things Matter to spearhead food distribution events since before the COVID-19 pandemic. A street in the community has been named in her honor: Sawa’s Hope Circle.

With the Truman Scholarship, Kamara hopes to earn her master’s degree in public policy and to begin a career at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She plans to work for the redesign of substandard public housing with proven international methods in combination with innovative strategies that can be adapted to each community and its needs; she also intends to work for greater accountability in the public sphere—particularly when it comes to corruption that harms the interests of the traditionally underserved and marginalized.

“We are tremendously proud of Sawa,” said Dean Robert Orr. “She perfectly embodies the ideal of the scholar-practitioner that we champion at the School of Public Policy.”

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