Written by: 
Heather Noel
Photography by: 
Michael Clements

When UNT student Hillary Shah faces barriers in her social-justice work, she finds encouragement in the words of the late American politician Shirley Chisholm: "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

"And many times, I've had to bring a folding chair," Shah says. "But I think it's better to bring a folding chair than not show up at the table."

The political science and economics major graduating this May has been prolific in her public- and community-service work. She cares deeply about empowering people of color, people living in poverty, felons and others.

Her efforts to advocate for marginalized communities have earned her the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, the nation's premier graduate fellowship for college students pursuing careers in public service.

Shah is one of 62 students in the U.S. selected this year for the scholarship, which Congress established as an official federal memorial to the nation's 33rd president.

UNT President Neal Smatresk, Provost Jennifer Cowley and others surprised Shah recently with the news by logging on to a Zoom session of Shah's economics class.

"I am so blown away by your accomplishments as a UNT student and your passion and commitment for social justice issues," Smatresk told Shah during the announcement. "I know you're going to continue to succeed. Congratulations on this incredible achievement. Being a Truman Scholar is a rarity."

Shah, who is a member of the UNT Honors College, is the fourth UNT student to win the Truman Scholarship. Over the years, there have been eight UNT finalists for the award. Most recently in 2019, David Yue became the first Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science student to be named a finalist.

As a Truman Scholar, Shah will receive a $30,000 scholarship for her graduate study. In addition, scholars receive priority admission and supplemental financial support at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government.

"The UNT Faculty Nominating Committee commends Hillary for the added distinction she has brought to herself and to UNT," says James Duban, Honors College associate dean for research and national scholarships and chair for the UNT Truman Scholarship Nominating and Mentoring Committee. "She is a brilliant undergraduate who is determined to enhance the quality of life for others and who will certainly continue making significant contributions to society."

Faculty members David Molina, Kimi King, Lisa Dicke and Peggy Tobolowsky also coached and supported Shah in the application and interview process for the nationally competitive scholarship.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Shah is the first in her family to pursue a career in public service.

"It feels like a dream. I never did any of the work because I wanted to be thanked for it or get anything in return, but it's really nice to be seen and be validated that what I've been doing has been good and impactful," Shah says. "The Truman Scholarship isn't just going to give me money, but also connections and a network of people who are doing the same work. I'm really excited to be part of a community of like-minded people who are as passionate about public service as I am."

Shah first sparked community action as a senior at Lone Star High School in Frisco following the events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead after a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle. Moved to act, Shah and other Frisco ISD students organized a coordinated school walk out for gun violence prevention that gathered 2,500 people.

"My brain switched from theoretical advocacy to hands-on activism. I realized that it was something I was born to do. It fueled me," Shah says.

While at UNT, Shah has served in the Student Government Association as vice president and is a founding member of the Coalition of Civic Empowerment. She has been active in expanding student voter registration and voter education on campus. She even helped break a state record during her freshman year in 2018 by registering 752 eligible voters in one day.

As a member of the UNT Moot Court Team, she has excelled in debate competitions at a national level, including an award-winning argument against the University of Chicago in front of Texas Supreme Court justices.

She has served as an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington D.C., as well as in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Commerce through the Washington Leadership Program, a national organization that focuses on fostering the next generation of leaders from the South Asian community.

Faculty members such as political science Professor Kimi King and many others have been influential in their guidance during her time at UNT, Shah says.

"I came to UNT thinking I was alone, and I'm coming out with a community of people who are invested in my success. They knew what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. I'll be forever grateful for the time and effort my professors have put into helping me and the relationships I've built here," she says.

Following her graduation, Shah plans to move to D.C. where she has multiple offers for work in public service. She will use her Truman Scholarship to continue her studies in law school and plans to continue her advocacy work.

"I don't have a dream job. I have a dream impact. I want to uplift marginalized communities," Shah says. "Maybe that's through litigation, policy writing or advocacy — whatever that is, I want to raise visibility for those who are disenfranchised and given lesser resources than the majority class. Everything I do will be through that goal."

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