Niha Jain comes from Shreveport, La., but her thoughts are often of India, where she was born. When she heard about a village on the outskirts of New Delhi where many women are forced into prostitution, she felt compelled to help, even though she was half a world away. She partnered with a couple of her classmates and raised $20,000 to fund sewing and embroidery training for the village women so they would have another way to make a living.
“I have been passionate about women’s issues since middle school, when I began volunteering at a local shelter for victims of domestic violence,” she said. “I decided to get involved in India because I wanted to help a vibrant community of women realize their full potential with new job opportunities.”
Jain’s passion for making a difference was rewarded last week when she and classmate Anthony Hernandez ’12 were named Truman Scholars as college juniors who have demonstrated “exceptional leadership potential” and are “committed to careers in government, the nonprofit or advocacy sectors, education or elsewhere in the public service.” The award, which provides up to $30,000 for graduate school, is given annually to students from about 50 U.S. colleges and universities. This year, Jain and Hernandez were two of only 60 winners chosen from a pool of 602 nominees.
“I’m very pleased to hear that the Truman Foundation has recognized two of our undergraduates for their service and their potential to be leaders in the nonprofit sector,” said Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds. “On behalf of the faculty and staff of Harvard College, I congratulate Anthony and Niha on this remarkable achievement.”
Hernandez’s passion is for education, particularly efforts to improve inner-city schools. He spent last summer recruiting students for the new KIPP Stand Academy charter school in North Minneapolis.
“It was my first immersive experience in the world of urban education,” he said. “Because the school was new, we had to recruit a new class of fifth-graders from African-American neighborhoods in North Minneapolis. I spent a lot of time at local recreation centers, churches, and even radio stations, talking about the school and convincing parents to enroll their kids. It was like running a political campaign, only the target voters were fifth-graders.”
Hernandez’s public service work is not limited to education. He has also worked with a U.S.-China relations organization and has been an intern for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota. On campus, Hernandez is president of the College chapter of Students for Education Reform, “an organization that mobilizes a new generation of leaders … focused on closing the achievement gap and ensuring an excellent education for all children.”
Both of Harvard’s Truman Scholars have big plans for the future. This summer, Jain and a team of faculty from the Harvard School of Public Health will return to India to implement EduGage, a short-message service (SMS) system that turns cellphones into tools for monitoring and improving the education delivery chain.
“Our initial measure of success is simply participation,” Jain said. “In the long term, we want to improve the quality of education in the schools. That means higher attendance rates, more girls in school, more transportation, etc.”
Hernandez will spend much of the fall in the classroom of a Cambridge public school in order to complete the practicum portion of the teacher certification process. He hopes to land a position in an inner-city school when he graduates from Harvard next year, an ambition he developed in part from observing the impact that education has had on his family.
“Education has always been a gateway to opportunity in my family,” he said. “My grandfather on my mother’s side went to college on the GI Bill. My dad was the first in his family to go to college. The role models in my life have always been teachers too: my mom, my high school choir teacher, and Congressman Walz all taught public school.”
Jain and Hernandez say that their time at Harvard has only strengthened their commitment to nonprofit work. Hernandez said the college experience has been a great privilege; one that he feels obligated to share through service.
“No matter what kind of background you come from, going to Harvard is an amazing opportunity,” he said. “I don’t think everyone has to work in a nonprofit, but it’s a shame not to give something back to the community and to people in need.”