DENTON (UNT), Texas — Katherine Lester, a senior geography major at the University of North Texas, is one of 199 college and university students in the nation to be selected as a finalist for a 2013 Harry S. Truman Scholarship. She is the daughter of Marsha Lester of Richmond, Va., and a 2004 graduate of Mills E. Godwin High School in Richmond.
The Harry S. Truman Foundation was established by Congress as the official federal memorial to honor the 33rd president. The foundation awards scholarships to students with exceptional leadership potential who are committed to careers in government, nonprofit or advocacy agencies, education or elsewhere in public service. Each Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling and special internship opportunities within the federal government.
UNT has had seven students who were finalists for the Truman Scholarships, and three students who won the scholarships, since 1996. She will have her final interview for the scholarship March 8, and this year’s winners will be announced by April 11.
Students are nominated for Truman scholarships by their universities or colleges, after they apply during their junior or senior years. To be eligible for a Truman Scholarship, a student must have an extensive record of public and community service.
Lester was a volunteer with AmeriCorps VISTA at the Houston Galveston Institute for a year. At the institute, she coordinated mental services for the Greater Houston Long-Term Recovery Committee, a group of nonprofit agencies and government officials that assisted those impacted by Hurricane Ike after it hit the Texas coast in September 2008. Lester also helped others at the institute perform outreach and write grants to assist survivors of both Ike and Hurricane Katrina.
At UNT, Lester is conducting medical geography research with Joseph Oppong, professor of geography. She is mapping the distribution of mental health services in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, using geographic information systems, to determine areas that are underserved by mental health services. Lester said the homeless population may particularly lack access to the services, despite the fact that mental illnesses and addiction often lead to homelessness.
“Services for the homeless cluster in sparsely populated areas of the inner city, far from very rich and very poor neighborhoods,” she said. “However, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the rate of suburban homelessness is rising rapidly in the years following the economic crisis, and most of these newly homeless persons are employed and living with children.”
These newly homeless persons may choose to remain in their neighborhoods and forego services so they can keep their children in their same schools, keep their employment and stay connected with social-support networks, Lester said. She suggests that funding smaller, more spatially dispersed homeless shelters and service hubs will increase access to mental health services.
Lester was nominated for the Truman Scholarship by UNT’s Truman Scholarship Nominating and Mentoring Committee, which will meet with her for practice interviews. The committee members are John Books, retired associate professor of political science; Lisa Dicke, associate professor of public administration; David Molina, associate professor of economics; and Peggy Tobolowsky, professor and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice. James Duban, director of the UNT Office for Nationally Competitive Scholarships, heads the committee.
“I join my colleagues on the Truman Scholarship Nominating and Mentoring Committee in feeling excited about Katherine’s prospects,” Duban said. “She stands to make an enormous difference in forging public policy that will allow our country to deal more productively with the issue of homelessness and with the varied populations that have to navigate such a frightful state of existence.”
Lester transferred to UNT from Michigan State University, where she was selected for a summer internship in the office of Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine. She conducted policy research on urban blight, traffic patterns and tobacco production, and collaborated on a summary of public prekindergarten programs to help Kaine address the rising cost of private daycare.
“A few months later, when Tim Kaine became governor, he quickly implemented free universal prekindergarten based on the model I helped to develop. I have seen how research informs viable public policy and am proud that my work has already helped to advance the welfare of thousands of Americans,” Lester said.
At UNT, Lester is a student assistant in the Toulouse Graduate School and was named to the President’s List for having a perfect grade point average.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree this December, Lester plans to stay at UNT and earn a master’s degree in applied geography, concentrating on courses in medical geography. She also plans to earn a doctoral degree in environmental science from UNT’s Institute of Applied Science to better understand human interactions with the environment and write her dissertation on mental health geography. Lester would also like to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship with the National Institute of Mental Health and teach health geography as a university professor.
Note: A photo of Katherine Lester may be downloaded here.