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Dara Purvis Named Truman Scholar

by Melissa Payton

Dara Purvis, 2002 Truman Scholar

Photo by Irene Fertik

For the third year in a row and the 15th time since 1982, a USC student has won a lucrative Truman Scholarship.

Dara Purvis, a junior majoring in theater and political science with a 4.0 GPA, is the latest USC student to win the award, which recognizes public service as well as academic achievement. The 77 winners nationwide this year will each receive $30,000 to apply toward graduate studies.

Purvis is a founding member of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance at USC, which has sponsored campus appearances by speakers such as Mavis Leno and Katherine Spillar. She is chairperson of the Academic Culture Initiative Student Advisory Board and active in USC College Democrats and the Women’s Student Assembly.

“My parents raised my sisters and me to be very socially conscious,” she said. “They raised us to be aware of the problems in the world, and that we have a real obligation to try to make things better for other people.”

Purvis’ father teaches constitutional law at a college near Fresno, and her mother began practicing law three years ago after returning to school for her degree. Purvis grew up in Fresno, where she was a member of her public high school’s award-winning Academic Decathlon team.

She expects to use the Truman Scholarship for Harvard Law School, her first choice because of its strength in public interest law. Eventually, Purvis said, she would like to found a feminist law clinic that would harness the resources of a law school’s students and faculty to pursue legal and policy goals through the courts in such areas as abortion rights, health-care discrimination and the gender wage gap.

Purvis will be president next year of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance. “Hopefully, we’ll take over the campus,” she said with a wry smile. Although she finds that some of her fellow students are hostile to the women’s movement and even many supporters shy away from the word “feminist,” the organization has grown steadily and accomplished a great deal, she said. She wants the organization to continue working with other progressive student groups on campus to “build more of an activist community at USC.”

Purvis was also a columnist for the Daily Trojan during the past school year, writing regularly on such topics as media bias and the importance of unfettered speech post-Sept. 11. She has taken up fencing with the USC Fencing Club, and she works several hours a week as an SAT tutor at two South-Central Los Angeles public high schools.

If it sounds like Purvis is an overachieving drone, think again. For a freshman project, she designed a witty Web page about herself, her family and her friends, complete with stick drawings to illustrate their personalities. A 1999 Fresno Bee article about her high school Academic Decathlon team lead with a description of Purvis as a “zany spirit into free expression … fun and brainy.”

At that point, Purvis hoped to be an actress. Now, although she still enjoys theater, she said, “There is something about politics and the law that really pulls me.”

Purvis has taken several political science classes from associate professor Howard Gillman, who suspended the usual syllabus for his Law, Politics and Public Policy class in 2000 to track the legal and political maneuverings surrounding the Bush-Gore contest. (Gillman wrote a book about the election as well.) She considers Gillman and Mark Kann, political science professor and director of the Academic Culture Initiative, as her mentors at USC.

“Dara brings a sense of urgency to her studies,” Gillman said. “She understands that a serious engagement with vital political, legal, and ethical issues is central to who she is as a person.”

Purvis said she would enjoy public office someday if she didn’t pursue a legal career. But as an “extremely liberal feminist-vegetarian-atheist, I decided long ago that because of my personal beliefs, I’m completely unelectable,” she said with a laugh.

Why the Truman Program Likes Trojans

Margaret Harrington, director of the Office for Organization Improvement Services, has been the USC coordinator of the Truman Scholarship selection process since 1994. Since that time, USC has had a total of nine finalists, five of whom were selected as scholars.

Harrington said there’s no simple reason why USC students are so successful at winning the scholarships. (This year, 77 students were chosen nationwide for the $30,000 awards, including only four from California.)

“Several hallmarks of the USC undergraduate experience – particularly encouragement of multidisciplinary study and engagement in community service – attract the kind of students who are natural candidates for the Truman Scholarship,” she said.

Also, because USC students have so many ways to participate in activities on campus and in nearby communities, many are able to develop leadership skills, Harrington said. Other factors: USC is drawing more high-achieving students than ever and makes it a priority to promote and support graduate scholarship programs such as the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright programs.

“Finally, the students themselves deserve the majority of the credit, not only for their outstanding qualifications, but also for their willingness to work hard in preparing their applications and preparing for the regional interviews,” Harrington said.

However, many Truman Scholars, including USC’s latest, Dara Purvis, say Harrington herself deserves credit for finding applicants and supporting them through the complex application process.

Dara Purvis Named Truman Scholar

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