KINGSTON, R.I. – April 15, 2013 – University of Rhode Island junior Alyssa Neill sees great value in knowing where food comes from and how it grows. The nutrition and dietetics major and co-founder of the student group Slow Food URI has put that knowledge to good use by launching a local food market, building a vegetable garden on campus, and representing the University at food forums near and far.
Neill and her commitment to a healthy food system were recognized this week as she was named a Truman Scholar and awarded a $30,000 grant for graduate study. Selected for her academic achievement, leadership ability and likelihood of a career in public service, she will receive her award along with 61 other college juniors at a ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri on June 2.
“It was an amazing surprise,” said Neill of the morning when URI President David Dooley and a dozen of her professors arrived in one of her classes with a bouquet of flowers to announce her selection. “It was a humbling application process, but it’s true what people say, you reap what you sow. It was a great feeling.”
The humbling process Neill referred to 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, among them the president of Fordham University, the New York Commissioner of Education, a judge and other distinguished leaders.
Students may only apply for a Truman Scholarship if they are nominated by their university. At URI, qualified juniors may seek nomination through a highly selective campus pre-application process held each fall. Neill’s application was vetted and she participated in a series of mock interviews organized by Kathleen Maher, assistant director of the URI Honors Program.
Neill said the Truman Scholars program is geared to students who want to be agents of change. “Because I’m passionate about nutritional sciences and want to see a change in our food system, it seemed like a good match.”
She became interested in nutrition as a sophomore at South Kingstown High School, when she entered a teen pageant and, seeking to look her best, focused on a healthy diet. That’s when she started her first garden.
“I’ve always been an old soul,” she said with a grin. “I’ve always loved food and loved making people happy with my cooking. But after I started growing food, that’s when I realized the importance of the cycle of growing and eating to sustain yourself.”
When she started Slow Food URI as a freshman, Neill sought to encourage the consumption of healthy food grown in a clean environment, where farm animals are raised in humane conditions and farmers are compensated fairly for their products. The group built small gardens at the Oliver Watson House, hosted regular local food markets on the quadrangle, and even helped slaughter turkeys at Thanksgiving.
Her ultimate aim is to change the food system through grassroots efforts.
“I want people to value wholesome foods, to understand that the food they eat affects their health and the environment,” said Neill, a member of the URI President’s Council for Sustainability. “But people aren’t going to value wholesome foods until they experience them; then they will want and desire them. I want to be an advocate, especially for lower income people who don’t have access to wholesome food.”
Neill looks forward to the doors that will be open to her through the network of Truman Scholar alumni. Next summer she will have the opportunity to attend the Summer Institute in Washington, D.C, which includes an 8-week public service internship, as well as seminars on national policymaking and meetings with prominent public servants.
Following graduation from URI, she plans to earn a master’s degree in public health. The Truman Scholars program then requires that she commit to 3 to 7 years of public service at a government agency or non-profit organization.
“I want to show people that we are more than consumers,” Neill wrote in her Truman application. “Eating is an agricultural act, and we should act responsibly – for our health and the health of the environment – with every bite we take.”
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.
This award is among eight coveted national scholarships won by URI students this year. They were awarded two Fulbright Scholarships, three NOAA/Hollings Scholarships, a Whitaker Scholarship, a Truman Scholarship, and a Boren Scholarship.