Three Charlotte students nominated for Truman Scholarship

Categories: General News Tags: Academic Affairs

Three UNC Charlotte students from the College of Humanities & Earth and Social Sciences and the Belk College of Business are nominees for the prestigious Truman Scholarship. All three students are also members of the Honors College.

The Truman Scholarship offers up to $30,000 for graduate study for juniors who demonstrate promising academic potential, outstanding leadership and a commitment to public service. The national winners will be announced in April.

Meet the Truman Nominees

sonia birla

Sonia Birla, a junior from Cary, North Carolina, is pursuing a triple major in finance, geography and international studies. She is a Levine Scholar and a student in the Business Honors program. Birla’s passion for building community started with a summer internship in urban planning at Charlotte Center City Partners that was supposed to last for only eight weeks, but she “fell in love with the work” so she stayed on for eight months and changed her career focus.

Birla is devoted to building sustainable communities by improving access to all the resources needed for people to not just live but thrive. She spent the summer of 2023 in Philadelphia working with The Community Grocer, a nonprofit associated with the University of Pennsylvania’s Venture Lab, researching best practices in the field of food justice and SNAP benefits for underserved communities. Last fall, Birla served as a Gambrell Faculty Fellows research assistant, investigating “chrono-urbanism” to study neighborhoods across the country with walk- or bike-able amenities within a 10- to 20-minute commute.

She works for urbanCORE as a community innovation incubator fellow and is engaged in creating spaces in Charlotte’s Sugar Creek neighborhood for children to embrace art. Birla is also vice chair of the Charlotte Green Initiative, which allows her to spearhead sustainability efforts on campus, such as adding amenities like benches and bike racks to local greenways and a recent pilot to separate waste streams for composting paper towels from bathrooms.

This summer, Birla is headed to Thailand with faculty from geography through a National Science Foundation grant to study the lasting consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the landscape and tropical crop cultivation.

“Geography sounds like maps, but it’s the study of spaces and urban planning, and I love it. I’m so interested in community engaged planning — working with different stakeholders and putting people together,” said Birla.

grace cooperGrace Cooper of Cary, North Carolina, is double majoring in political science and economics with a minor in legal studies and is in the University and Political Science honors programs. She is junior class president in the Student Government Association and served as president of her freshman and sophomore classes.

“In my freshman year, I noticed there was a need for more mental health awareness on campus and within the Charlotte community. I recognized the need for creating a campus environment that fosters growth and helps students achieve their highest possibilities and helps them become the best versions of themselves,” said Cooper.

To promote that environment, Cooper brought the national “Out of the Darkness” walk to campus to promote suicide prevention and partnered with campus organizations to host a “Wellbeing Block Party” with more than 40 vendors.

Cooper wanted to study law from a young age, but after personal events, she became aware of how much legal policies can impact mental health. She has interned and worked at criminal defense law firms since her freshman year and feels called to help connect people to supportive mental health resources when they’re in need.

For people involved in legal proceedings, it’s often the hardest point in their lives, explained Cooper. “There needs to be implementations of alternative dispute resolutions — you’re worried about possible outcomes, and it’s such a long process — it can take a toll on an individual’s mental health. We need to connect the mental health and legal field together, and they should be looked at as interdisciplinary.”

Cooper will begin research in the Mental Health Research and Practice Innovation Lab and will attend the 2024 Alternative Spring Break trip to Charleston, South Carolina, focusing on racial justice.

ellie mccutchenAdopted from China at the age of 1, Ellie McCutchen grew up in Clemmons, North Carolina, and employs a worldview and is interested in serving on the global stage. She intends to pursue a life of public service modeled by her mom, an elementary public school librarian, and her dad, a firefighter.

McCutchen has developed an interest in the interconnectedness of public policy, international relations and economic factors and how that confluence impacts society, politics and elections. A Levine Scholar, she is pursuing degrees in political science, sociology and economics.

On campus, McCutchen is in her sixth semester as a Niner Guide, giving tours to showcase the University to the next class of Charlotte students. She also is working with a group of friends this semester to share Chinese language and culture with the campus community through the Chinese Undergraduate Student Association. She also expresses her creative side by working in the costume shop to craft stage outfits that capture the characters’ personalities in Niner dance productions and theater performances.

To learn more about the foundations of government, McCutchen has helped faculty plan and host an election science conference and researched alongside faculty to investigate gender dynamics on the discourse of the U.S. Supreme Court. She has been a member of the UNC Charlotte Mock Trial team since her freshman year, arguing cases at competitions, and helps other students on the team prepare for competitions.

McCutchen was awarded the Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State last summer and spent eight weeks in Taiwan living with a host family to immerse herself in the language and culture. This summer, McCutchen plans to study abroad in Singapore and explore the Indo-Pacific region through a public policy internship.

The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation was founded in 1975 and awards fellowships for graduate study for U.S. juniors who have shown leadership and are pursuing careers in public service. Truman did not attend college himself and instead of a commemorative statue, he wanted a “living memorial that would give life to the values of service” to support education and those who are answering the call to serve others.

During the 2022-23 academic year, UNC Charlotte was home to 14 national scholarship and fellowship student awardees, including for the Fulbright, Gilman and Goldwater. The Honors College advises all undergraduate students who are applying for nationally competitive scholarships.