Undergraduate Academic Affairs

April 15, 2020

University of Washington junior Virginia Burton receives prestigious Truman Scholarship

Jenelle Birnbaum

Congratulations to University of Washington junior, Virginia Burton, for being selected for the prestigious Truman Scholarship. A highly competitive award, only 62 students were selected  from more than 773 nominations. The scholarship recognizes future leaders driven to make change at the policy level. Students are selected based on outstanding leadership, demonstrated civic engagement, academic potential and a desire to pursue a career in public service. Scholars receive up to $30,000 for graduate school to help prepare them for a career in public service. Burton plans to earn a joint law degree and masters of public administration in order to advocate for prison and criminal justice reform. The political science major’s goals and extensive background in social services are deeply personal.

Burton is a 47-year-old mother of three and a first-generation, non-traditional student. After taking more than two decades off from formal education, she decided to return to school in 2017 after becoming frustrated with the criminal justice system. Having experienced addiction, incarceration and seeing her family’s experiences with the criminal justice system, she recognized education was the key to continuing her work more intentionally.

Burton, at Camp Muir, on her way to summit Mt. Rainier. Burton learned mountaineering from a friend at church. The skills gained mountaineering, combined with the Post Prison Education Program and her church family, helped her develop the strength, confidence and mindset to return to school and pursue her career goals.

“Making the decision to return to school so late in life was a challenge for me. I thought I might be too old to start my life over again and that learning might be harder than I imagined. I decided that I would tackle each challenge I faced with the same drive I tackle mountains. There is no excuse to stop moving forward. If I want to reach the summit, I must keep climbing.”

Burton’s drive is apparent. She earned her associates degree from South Seattle College in 2018 and is currently a junior at the UW. She’s received several scholarships, including the Martin Family Honors Scholarship, All Washington Academic Team and was a semifinalist for the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship. When she was a student at South Seattle College, she was named to the dean’s list, and she’s continued to earn a spot on the dean’s list at the UW.

“I’m thrilled for Virginia,” explains University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, “but even more for the world, because she is so committed to making it a better place. Her combination of brilliance, a quality education, and lessons learned from difficult life experience is truly rare.”

Burton’s leadership and dedication to creating systems that empower people to improve their lives is strong. In her three years as a supervisor at a men’s shelter, she trained her case managers to navigate the usual barriers people face when looking for stable housing. By the time she left, her programs had helped house nearly 600 people, representing a six-fold increase in people exiting homelessness. She has also been volunteering with the Post Prison Education Program since 2011, a nonprofit that provides support to former prisoners while attending school post-release. She goes into prisons, shares her story of rehabilitation and is available to mentor people once they get out. Based on her experience, she knows “prisons are not rehabilitative,” and that people often are released without having the skills to succeed when they are released. Her long term goals are to realize her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer, run for elected office and to restructure prison time. Her vision for prison reform includes requiring treatment, therapy, education, job training, parenting, conflict resolution and finance classes, ultimately reducing the recidivism rate and creating a safer community.

“Virginia Burton is a unique and praiseworthy choice for this fellowship,” says Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, Ed Taylor. “She exemplifies the very purpose of the Truman Fellowship: She is devoted to public good, she is inspired, brave and she leads from her heart and mind. This fellowship intends to recognize leadership potential and commitment to public service. Virgina Burton is a spot-on selection.”

“It is hard for me to explain what receiving the Truman means to me,” reflects Burton. “I went back to school because the system made me angry. I believe I have a voice that speaks for people who are overlooked and disregarded. This scholarship allows me to develop my voice, speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and be a part of a community of world changers. It will provide me an opportunity to obtain a graduate degree without accruing tremendous debt. The Truman is also giving me an opportunity to model to my children how hard work pays off. More than anything, I want to show my kids a different life than the one I lived.”

About the Truman
The Truman Foundation was created by Congress in 1975 as the living memorial to President Truman and the Presidential Memorial to Public Service. The Truman Scholarship recognizes outstanding leadership potential, academic achievement, and the desire to pursue a career in public service. The scholarship  provides up to $30,000 in funding to students pursuing graduate degrees in public service fields. There have been 3,322 Truman Scholars selected since the first awards in 1977. Truman Scholars lead at all levels of government and throughout the nonprofit sector.

About OMSFA 
The Truman Scholarship application process is supported by the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards (OMSFA), a UAA program. OMSFA works with faculty, staff and students to identify and support promising students in developing the skills and personal insights necessary to become strong candidates for this and other prestigious awards.