A passion for learning and public service inspires the life and work of Zoraima Pelaez, a Liberal Arts Honors and humanities junior at UT Austin who was named a 2016 Truman Scholar.
Congress created the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation in 1975 as the nation’s living memorial to President Harry S. Truman. It has since become one of the most prestigious national scholarships in the United States, awarding students with a $30,000 scholarship toward graduate school and the opportunity to participate in professional development programming to help prepare them for careers in public service leadership.
Pelaez was one of 54 college juniors nationwide selected by the Foundation out of a record 775 nominees. The organization seeks to identify and support the next generation of public service leaders based on career and graduate study interests, community service and academic records, as well as their potential as “change agents.” UT Austin has had 19 Truman scholars since 1993, ranking second among all public institutions.
“The Truman Scholars Program seeks young people who are going to make significant contributions to improving the lives of others through public service,” said Larry Carver, director of the Liberal Arts Honors Program. “It is looking for students who are gifted in the classroom but who also have a distinguished record of civic engagement, one presaging a promising future. Zoraima has that in spades.”
Pelaez is a first-generation American and the first in her family to attend college. She enrolled in beauty school after her high school graduation in 2006, following in her mother’s footsteps as a hairstylist. As she began to excel in her career as a hair and makeup artist specializing in weddings, Pelaez was inspired to return to school. She enrolled at Austin Community College, progressing from a part-time to full-time student while also working full time. While a student there, her passion for social activism was awakened and her dream of transferring to a four-year university became an actively pursued goal.
“In 2013 I ended up at the Capitol for Wendy Davis’ filibuster of HB2, a restrictive anti-abortion bill,” Pelaez said. “That night changed my life. I was overcome by the fervor of democracy and a passion for defending women’s rights and there was no going back. The next day I applied for a fellowship with Battleground Texas (a Political Action Committee attempting to make Texas a swing state) and set my sights on UT Austin.”
Pelaez transferred to UT Austin in spring 2015 and was recruited by the Humanities Program in the College of Liberal Arts. The honors program allows students to design their own 42-hour interdisciplinary major, culminating in a two-semester senior thesis. Pelaez’s contract emphasizes public policy, communication studies and women’s rights. Carver, who is also the director of the Humanities Program, calls it one of the best he has ever seen.
“What impresses me about Zoraima as a student is her drive and steely determination,” said Carver. “She has worked hard to get to UT Austin, knows what a privilege it is to be here and wants to take advantage of every opportunity. She is doing just that, taking challenging classes, getting to know professors and meeting with me regularly to plot out the best path for her studies. She has a curiosity that I wish all students could have.”
The flexibility of the program along with its close-knit community of students was important to have coming into UT Austin, said Pelaez.
“As a nontraditional student, I felt that the opportunity to create my own degree suited me perfectly,” Pelaez said. “I wanted my college experience to reflect the person I am. My studies in the humanities constantly reinforce the work I am passionate about and the change I wish to create in my community.”
Palaez is actively involved on campus outside of her courses. She is president of UT Austin’s chapter of the Texas Freedom Network, a member of the independent research program Junior Fellows and an undergraduate assistant for the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, which assesses the impact of reproductive health legislation. She was also recently selected for UT Austin’s Archer Fellowship Program, which sends students to study and intern in Washington, D.C., for a full semester.
She also volunteers for a variety of community organizations. In addition to her fellowship with Battleground Texas, she volunteered for Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial campaign, canvassed to elect Brigid Shea as Travis County Commissioner, volunteered with Pro-Choice Texas and had an internship with Project Vote Smart. On the childhood education front, she has worked with Austin Partners in Education, Christian Outreach Foundation and United Way for a Greater Austin’s Young Leader’s Society.
This passion for public service was ignited by a personal tragedy, the death of her best friend, Jonyrose Filip, from sepsis.
“After Jonyrose’s passing, her sister and I organized a tribute and fundraiser for the Sepsis Alliance in order to raise awareness of this silent and deadly condition,” Pelaez said. “Although her loss was tremendous, it was somewhat eased by the realization that we could help others through our actions.”
Pelaez will continue her drive for social change by attending law school following graduation, where the funds and prestige of the Truman Scholarship will greatly aid her. She plans on applying to The University of Texas Law School, as well as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley and George Washington University.
“In addition to having a very substantial financial weight lifted off my shoulders, I get to be a part of a very special community,” Pelaez said. “Truman scholars are doing amazing things in their respected fields and I am now a part of that network of individuals. As someone who never expected to even attend college, winning the Truman scholarship has emboldened me to continue my work fighting for the rights of others, so that they too may be able to overcome barriers to their success, however they so choose to define it.
“As I said in my Truman application, although I may have gotten a late start, I’ve never been more dedicated or sure about my future, and I will work tirelessly to give others opportunities that I have had.”