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Action heroes

Mizzou’s Truman Scholars earn national honors by getting things done

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  • Story by Chris Blose
  • Photo by Shane Epping
  • Published: April 4, 2008
Jennifer Kimball and Laura Merritt

Jennifer Kimball and Laura Merritt were named Truman Scholars for their leadership and public service.

Jennifer Kimball and Laura Merritt are overachievers. If that word has a negative connotation for you, then you haven’t met Kimball and Merritt.

Because of their energetic leadership and public service, the two have earned the title of Truman Scholars. Named for the former president, the prestigious national scholarships went to 65 students out of 595 candidates. Scholars get up to $30,000 for graduate school, plus priority admission.

The two winning Mizzou juniors have tackled causes near and dear to them but with universal value — human trafficking issues, aid for Hurricane Katrina survivors and a campaign for stem cell research. Some people get fired up about these issues but never go beyond lip service.

Others are compelled to act.

Kimball sums it up best: “If you are aware of issues, if you are aware of needs, I don’t know how you can’t act.”

Personal and national health

Sometimes the issues that spur an individual to action are highly personal.

Merritt, a McKinney, Texas, native, has dealt with rheumatoid arthritis throughout her young life. She studies health and political science and likely will continue to do so in graduate school, and her leadership on health issues is part of the reason she earned a Truman Scholarship.

As an intern for Missouri State Sen. Chris Koster, she does plenty of the “stereotypical intern tasks” — making copies, taking notes and so on — but she also gets to work with Koster on an upcoming bill designed to guarantee medical coverage for children with autism.

“When people with health issues aren’t getting the care they need, and when money is not being put toward research, something’s wrong,” she says.

The research portion of that statement came into play in 2006, as Missouri voters faced a contentious constitutional vote about stem cell research. To Merritt, proponents took an overly scientific approach that went over the heads of the average person. Opponents used “scare” words that muddled the issue.

Merritt is a proponent. To her, the possibility of relief for people suffering from a variety of illnesses — neurological disorders, spinal cord injuries, cancer and, yes, rheumatoid arthritis — puts the research in line with her Christian conservative beliefs. To share that notion with voters, she started the “I Am” campaign.

She and fellow campaigners spread fliers around campus centered on the theme: “Interested in Stem Cell Research? I Am.” Two other Missouri universities also adopted the campaign, and now one in North Carolina is doing the same.

Merritt’s health service works on a smaller scale, too. After spending plenty of time in hospitals while growing up, she wanted to remedy a common complaint: It’s freezing cold in hospitals. She designed a special “Cozy Care” sweatshirt that provides warmth but is specially adapted so nurses can access a patient’s arm for shots and tests.

Merritt —also an Honors College ambassador and a member of the Griffiths Leadership Society for Women and Alumni Association Student Board — has been making the shirts and donating them to hospitals for years. She would love to patent her design and start a nonprofit organization, but costs are formidable. She’s trying to enlist another woman with great leadership and public service skills.

“I’ve written Oprah,” she says, “so maybe that will pan out for me.”

The need to act

For Kimball, service is a family thing. After moving to Columbia in high school, she and her whole family volunteered locally at the Peace Nook and KOPN radio station.

“To me, public service is just a part of life,” she says.

Kimball studies women and gender studies (and serves as president of that student organization), with a minor in leadership and public service. She takes great interest in the victims of domestic violence and discrimination and in related policies.

‘If you are aware of issues, if you are aware of needs, I don’t know how you can’t act.’

Most recently, Kimball and fellow student Paige Hendrix founded Stop Traffic, a group dedicated to bringing awareness and support to the often-overlooked issue of human trafficking for labor and the sex trade.

“The more you learn about it, the more you feel like you have to do something about it,” she says. “People tend to think of it as a national or international issue, but it can be local, too.”

The group has held fundraisers, recruited members and even hosted a national conference at Mizzou featuring experts — including one studying trafficking in mid-Missouri — and accounts from victims.

Kimball has a history of spotting an important or timely issue and taking appropriate action. She was a freshman when Hurricane Katrina created a huge refugee population, so she started Students as Neighbors, a group designed to help evacuees, particularly children, get acclimated to life in Columbia. She also directs KOPN’s Reel-to-Reel project, which archives historical programs for posterity.

Like Merritt, Kimball is an Honors College ambassador and works as an intern in Jefferson City in the office of Missouri State Rep. Judy Baker. She gets to attend meetings of powerful committees, work with lobbyists and basically just see how the political process works. It’s the perfect experience for someone interested in dealing with policy issues as an advocate after graduate school.

“I’m not interested in running for political office,” she says, “but I think it’s important to understand how it all happens.”

An intense process

Months of preparation. Countless hours spent writing and rewriting essays and policy proposals. Several mock interviews on campus. Tension. Pressure. And, finally, a 20-minute interview to pick winners.

That’s how Kimball and Merritt went from being Truman applicants to Truman Scholars. Both say the process was much easier because of Vicky Riback Wilson, a mentor and coordinator in the MU Fellowships Office, and others who helped them prepare for the intense process. By the time the final essays and interviews came around, they were ready for anything.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012