KINGSTON, R.I. – April 13, 2017 – When University of Rhode Island President David M. Dooley and many other university officials congregated outside Autumn Guillotte’s history class on Monday afternoon, she had no idea that she was soon to be the center of attention. The faculty and administrators were there to announce that Guillotte had been awarded a $30,000 Truman Scholarship, one of the most prestigious scholarships in the nation.
Selected by the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation for her academic achievement, leadership ability and commitment to a career in public service, Guillotte will receive her award along with 61 other college juniors at a ceremony at the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo. on May 28.
“I wondered why I was seeing everyone I knew on the way into class, but I didn’t catch on because I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t get this award,” said Guillotte, an honors student from North Kingstown majoring in history and philosophy. “When President Dooley walked in, I think I knew then. I had to hold back all sorts of emotions – I just wanted to cry and laugh and scream.”
Guillotte chose to undertake the lengthy and complicated process of applying for the Truman Scholarship in part as a way to pay for law school.
“But beyond the financial aspect, when I started to learn about the program, I found it to be a community that I wanted to engage with,” she said. “It’s about taking your education and using it to help people. That’s my goal – to work with and help people.”
The application process included a 15-part application, a sample policy statement, a formal institutional nomination and a wide-ranging interview in New York City with a panel of public servants and distinguished leaders.
“It was a yearlong process of building a narrative and understanding how I wanted to present myself and why I should be the Truman Scholar from Rhode Island. It took about three months of writing,” Guillotte explained. “Then when I became a finalist I did practice interviews with people throughout the URI community, anybody who would give me a good grilling, to make sure I knew my stuff.”
Students may only apply for a Truman Scholarship if they are nominated by their university. Guillotte credits Kathleen Maher, director of URI’s Office of National Fellowships, and Professor Cheryl Foster, associate director of the Honors Program, with being instrumental in guiding and supporting her throughout the process.
Both say that Guillotte was an ideal candidate for the scholarship. She learned about public service and the political process at a young age – meeting public officials at local parades while still in elementary school, campaigning for her state senator at age 16, and later clerking for the Rhode Island Government Oversight Committee as a URI freshman. She advocated for women’s rights as an intern with the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women, fought for voting rights with the College Democrats of Rhode Island, and championed constituent rights as an intern in the office of U.S. Sen. Jack Reed.
“I’m the most awake and excited when I’m talking to people, working collaboratively and understanding how someone might have a problem and seeing how I can help them solve that problem,” Guillotte said. “When you’re working with the broader community, you get to understand perspectives that you did not grow up with. I like broadening my experience.”
While participating in this array of public service activities, the URI student was also holding down two jobs, working in the URI Hunger Center and learning about her future career as a paid intern in a local law office, which reinforced her desire to pursue a career in labor law.
“I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. “Even in kindergarten I was running around saying I wanted to be a lawyer.
“The laws in the U.S. are the foundation of how people are able to live, to interact with the government, to benefit or defend themselves. In a labor context, the law is a great opportunity for protection and one of the biggest ways of creating stability for the average worker,” Guillotte added. “Being a lawyer and using these laws or changing these laws to help everyday working people is exciting to me.”
Guillotte has not yet thought about what law school she might like to attend because “all I can think about now is finishing the semester.” But she eventually sees herself working with non-profit organizations that represent workers, taking on anti-discrimination cases, and working with the government to shape policies and laws to help protect people’s jobs.
“It gives me hope that if we continue to encourage people to participate in their communities and interact with their public representatives, then we can help each other create a sustainable future,” she concluded.
The University of Rhode Island was named a Truman Scholarship Honor Institution in 2005 for its active encouragement of students to pursue careers in public service. It is the only public university in the Northeast with this designation.