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UMass junior Joseph Sklut wins national $30K scholarship

A University of Massachusetts junior has been named one of 60 students from 55 American colleges and universities to win the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, a top honor for the country’s undergraduates.

Joseph Sklut, a history major who is also in Commonwealth College, was chosen from 601 applicants for the award given out by the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.

According to a statement, the scholarship ‘- which is based solely on merits ‘- provides $30,000 to students to attend graduate or professional schools to prepare for a career in public service or government.

Recipients take part in leadership development programs and have special opportunities for internships and employment with the federal government. In return, they must commit to five to seven years of public service after graduate school, a statement said.

‘[Winning the scholarship is] such a game-changing accomplishment,’ Sklut said in a telephone interview. ‘It opens so many doors and it’s just really incredible and humbling that I could get it. I’m kind of flying high, I guess you could say.’
He said he learned about the Truman Scholarship in June when he attended an information session held by the UMass Office of National Scholarship Advisement (ONSA), which assists eligible students to pursue nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships, according to its website.

Sklut, 21, said he sat down with ONSA employees when he returned to campus in September, and they began working on his application, which was due in February.
He found out on March 24 that he was one of the recipients, though it happened in a rather nerve-racking way.

Priscilla Clarkson, the dean of Commonwealth College, and Susan Whitbourne, a UMass psychology professor and the director of ONSA, called Sklut down to the office. They told him he never completed his application and started berating him, asking questions like, ‘Why have you insulted the school?’

Sklut became very worried and wondered what he could have done wrong.

‘They all looked at me and then they said, ‘You’re not very astute, are you?’ and I was like, ‘What do you mean I’m not very astute?’ and then they had me turn around and there was this huge sign that said ‘Congratulations’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God,” he recalled. ‘They had told the chancellor and the chancellor came in and talked to me ‘- so it was pretty cool.’

Two days later the results were posted on the Truman Scholarship Foundation’s website.

‘It’s just really super. They only awarded 60 this year’hellip;I think the highest I ever knew of was 77,’ said Whitbourne, the director of the ONSA. ‘So, it’s getting harder to win and more people apply.’

Each student vying for a Truman Scholarship submitted a 10-page application, including a 200-word policy statement on a major social problem. About 190 finalists were selected for interviews and defended their policy statements to a panel of judges.
In his policy statement, Sklut proposed expanding the U.S. State Department in order to extend America’s ‘soft power’ around the world.

He and five other finalists from schools in the Commonwealth defended their statements during an all-day session at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on March 11. He was the only Truman Scholar from a Massachusetts college this year and is the fourth UMass Amherst student to ever receive it.

Sklut’s policy statement was one of great interest to him, as he is a history major currently in the Massachusetts Air National Guard. He is in his third year as a senior airman with the 102nd Intelligence Wing based at Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, according to a University statement.

He said he has been in the armed forces for three and a half years, including a two-year stint in active duty attached to an Air Force unit in Langley, Va.

He is a junior because he took one semester off to work for U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) in his Boston office and another to go to Texas for six months to train with the Air National Guard.

Sklut said he is applying to such graduate schools as Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown and possibly the University of Chicago. He said he wants to get his master’s degree in international relations or foreign service and then work for State Department, serving overseas with a diplomat.

Sklut’s dedication to his country and his schoolwork has won him the respect of his teachers.

‘He’s probably one of the sharpest students I’ve met since I’ve been doing honors seminars,’ said Larry Owens, a UMass history professor who had Sklut as a student in his computer science traditions seminar. ‘And he writes smartly, which in this day and age, that’s not to be taken lightly or for granted. So, he was a real pleasure to have in that seminar.’

According to the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, the honor ‘- first awarded in the 1977-78 academic year ‘- is funded by Congress and serves as a living memorial to the former president, who had a passion for education and public service.

Domenic Poli can be reached at

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