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Nathan Poland '20. Courtesy of the Department of African American Studies.

On Thursday, April 11, Nathan Poland ’20 was announced the winner of a 2019 Truman Scholarship, a national award that grants its recipients professional development opportunities and up to $30,000 toward graduate school.

The award was given to 62 college juniors “with exceptional leadership potential who are committed to careers in government, the nonprofit or advocacy sectors, education or elsewhere in the public service,” according to the Truman Scholarship Foundation.

Poland, a junior in the Department of African American Studies earning certificates in both Spanish and Portuguese and statistics and machine learning, plans to use the scholarship to pursue a career in public interest law.

“Immediately, I’m thinking of using the funds to pursue law school,” Poland said. “Hopefully, after I graduate, [I’ll] maybe take some time off to do some community-based work so I can better orient myself around what I want to actually do with my law degree.”

The scholarship was started in memory of President Harry S. Truman, who performed substantial humanitarian and service work. Poland believes that his experience in Princeton’s Novogratz Bridge Year Program and time at the University have given him insight into what service signifies.

“Service is really fraught, and it’s a really complicated thing, because I think there’s often a dichotomy between the served and the server, or what often looks like a white-savior complex, or a western-world savior complex, and I think that’s really dangerous,“ Poland said. “It is important to consider that it’s not some higher power serving the underserved, but that it’s more fluid in that by serving others, we’re serving ourselves, and by serving ourselves, we’re serving others in some ways.”

Poland said that most of his service work at the University has been focused on carceral reform.

“I got to campus and I got involved with Petey Greene. I got involved with PREP, the Princeton Re-entry and Employment Preparation Program, which tutors people at [correctional] facilities all across New Jersey… I got involved with SPEAR. I was involved with the Princeton Private Divestment team my freshman year when we were pushing the University to divest from private prisons,” he said.

This summer, Poland will intern at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City.

Poland said he is very grateful for the award and the platform it awards him, but he is still figuring out how to handle it.

“I’m still grappling with what to do with the award, because I really would like to use it in a way that elevates other people’s voices and other people’s needs, rather than play into individual exceptionalism, which I think is really dangerous,” he said.

“It’s funny because it’s a public service award that recognizes public service, but I feel like in some ways recognizing one individual is a disservice, because I feel like I am more than just myself. I am the communities I am a part of or the things that I care about,” Poland explained, specifically saying he belongs to the AAS department, SPEAR, and the Carl. A Fields Center.

While Poland is grateful for this award, he said he recognizes that it is not his accomplishment alone and encourages people to think about service as driven by the community.

“I am most indebted to the wisdom and scholarship of my formerly and currently incarcerated students, peers, and mentors,” Poland wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian.

“Their perspectives and the embodied knowledge they possess, that they have been generous enough to share with me, have pushed my academic horizons and challenged me to think deeply and serve intentionally around questions of justice and equity,“ he wrote. “I would not be where I am today without them, and I just wish they had the ability to contribute their insights and voices to every and all learning communities for the sake of justice, knowledge creation, and in the service of humanity.”

Poland expressed thanks for the support he received from Dr. Steve Gump and the Office of International Programs (OIP) Fellowship office; Professor Naomi Murakawa, Professor Imani Perry, Department Assistant Jana Johnson, Assistant to the Chair & Event Coordinator Dionne Worthy, and Department Manager April Peters, all of the AAS Department; Program Coordinator Jes Norman and Director Tennille Haynes, of the Carl. A Fields Center; and his friends and family.

“I’m really thankful to my village of people and teachers and professors that kept me sane and kept me human during this time, because this wouldn’t have been possible without them,” Poland said.

Poland explained the time-consuming process to win the award. First, he had to apply through Princeton to even be nominated for the award by submitting 12 essays.

He then attended a conference with all of the other candidates from New Jersey, during which they were interviewed one-by-one.

“The group really connected and was able to step outside of the experience and be people with one another during that time and so I met a lot of people through that…They’re really amazing people,” he said.

Poland is grateful to be among the recipients of this scholarship. “I’m humbled and honored and beyond fortunate,” he said.

According to the scholarship’s website, Congress created the Truman Scholarship in 1975 as a “living memorial that would support future generations who answer the call to public service leadership.”

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