Three Virginia Tech students – Austin Larrowe of Woodlawn, Va., a junior majoring in applied economic management and agricultural sciences; Sarah McKay of Barboursville, Va., a junior majoring in applied economic management and animal and poultry sciences; and Wes Williams of Roanoke, Va., a junior majoring in applied economic management; all in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – were honored as finalists for the 2014 Truman Scholarship.
The students are Pamplin Scholars in the University Honors program.
This year, almost 300 colleges and universities nominated 655 candidates. Of those, the Truman Scholarship Foundation selected just 204 students from 138 institutions as finalists. Ultimately, the foundation selected 59 students from 52 institutions for the prestigious award.
“While our three students were not among the winners, just reaching the finalist stage is a big achievement,” said Christina McIntyre, associate director of University Honors and adviser for applicants to major scholarships like Truman. “It’s wonderful to have even one finalist; for a school to have three finalists is rare. Virginia Tech has never had more than one finalist in a year, so we are very proud of Austin, Sarah, and Wes.”
The Truman Foundation awards scholarships for college students to attend graduate school in preparation for careers in government or another type of public service. To be considered, students must excel academically, have outstanding leadership and communication skills, and be committed to public service.
In between high school and college, Larrowe was a state officer of the National FFA Organization and traveled to more than 30 countries. The experience opened his eyes to international agriculture and education needs.
Larrowe founded Feed by Seed his first year at Virginia Tech. The non-profit organization focuses on global agriculture education, development, and advocacy. The charity runs an 18-acre farm in Nicaragua, teaching local people how to farm to provide food for their families. They also learn how to sell some of the food and manage their income.
“The Truman Scholarship finalist interview was not like any other interview I have ever been a part of before. It was designed to really test your people skills as well as your knowledge of current political situations and issues pertaining to your chosen career field,” Larrowe said. “While waiting to interview we had the opportunity to get to know the other Truman candidates from our region. They were all spectacular people who have an obvious passion for public service.”
“If asked to share Austin’s top three overall strengths, we would mutually agree upon courageous optimism, adaptable flexibility, and social responsibility,” said Andy Seibel, Virginia FAA specialist, and Megan Seibel, director of Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results (VALOR). “Austin has seen hardship both in his home community and in global villages and cities. He remains courageously optimistic that change and impact are not only possible, but will be influenced by his actions.”
Larrowe plans to graduate in May 2015. He intends to take a year or two off to continue his work with Feed by Seed, strengthening efforts in Nicaragua and, soon, Uganda. Then he would like to go back to school for a master’s and law degree in public policy to work in international aid and food policy.
McKay is active in undergraduate research, campus and community organizations, service experiences, education abroad, and government internships.
McKay founded a garden program at the Virginia Tech Child Development Center for Learning and Research. She works with children ages two through five and special needs seniors to plant herbs and vegetables together. The garden allows intergenerational learning, sparking conversations about agriculture, nutrition, and diversity and reconnecting people with their food.
“The [Truman Scholarship] interview itself, while one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life, was also one of the most inspiring,” McKay said. “I remember being afraid that the judges would tear apart my career goals and make me question my plans and everything I've worked toward. However, I left feeling confident and excited about my future. The experience really solidified that, regardless of the results, I am headed in the right direction and am pursing a passion and field that I belong and can really make a difference in.”
Through her garden project, as well as internships with Virginia congressmen and service to agricultural-focused organizations, McKay sees public service as an opportunity for her to solve problems “through policies that promote civic agriculture and community involvement, sustainable local farms, and education for healthy lifestyles.”
“Sarah is a leader,” said Richard T. Crowder, former U.S. chief agricultural trade negotiator and professor of agricultural and applied economics. “Her founding and organizing of the Snack Pack Drive in Orange, Va., and which she continued in Blacksburg, Va., demonstrate not only her leadership but also her initiative and concern for others.”
McKay will begin an accelerated master’s degree in applied economic management next year as she finishes her undergraduate degrees. After wrapping up her master’s degree in her fifth year, she hopes to spend a few years working in agribusiness before pursuing a career in agricultural policy.
While on the Presidential Global Scholars educational abroad experience, Williams did a group research project on sex trafficking in Europe. The paper piqued his passion for fighting human trafficking and slavery.
Working with two other University Honors students, the team won first and second place in a Challenge Slavery contest organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development USAID and partnering agencies. They launched the first place idea, AboliShop – a Web browser extension that allows online consumers to check their cart to identify products that likely used forced or exploitative labor in their manufacturing or distribution.
Through the content, Williams was able to visit the White House to talk about anti-trafficking technologies and the experience prompted him to apply for the Truman Scholarship. “Meeting the government officials that were working against human trafficking around the world and seeing the seemingly endless compassion they maintained for this issue while still working in the public sector was such a blessing,” Williams said. “A select few also specifically demonstrated how their faiths interfaced with this work, and I was encouraged to see other Christians working specifically against the oppression I feel it's so vital for the church to respond to. I was inspired by these men and women to follow suit.”
“He was not just conceptual in his concerns and passions,” said Jeff Noble, lead pastor at Northstar Church. “I’ve noticed that much of his generation think that they can ‘like’ a cause on Facebook or social media and feel like they’ve done ‘something. In contrast, Wes organized, mobilizes, and acts on issues in order to pragmatically meet needs and improve how systems work to serve people.”
After graduation, Williams plans to pursue a joint law and master’s of business administration degree. He also plans to continue development of an anti-trafficking non-profit called Tiplabs that will house ideas such as AboliShop that use innovative technologies to fight human trafficking.
For more information on the Truman Scholarship and Virginia Tech’s application process, contact Christina McIntyre.