Stellar Scholar

Olivia Smith

Olivia Smith, ’16, is the newest Truman Scholar from Seattle U

Written by Tina Potterf
Photography by Chris Kalinko
January 26, 2016

Olivia Smith, ’16, remembers the moment she learned she was a 2015 Truman Scholar. It was particularly memorable not only because of who broke the news to her—President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., at a Sullivan Leadership meeting—but also because it meant she was the 15th Truman from Seattle University.

“When he made the announcement, I immediately began to cry because I was excited, relieved, in disbelief and thankful,” Smith says. “As they read the official announcement, I bowed my head, closed my eyes and gave glory to God because I am blessed, truly blessed, to have received such an opportunity.”

Smith, a Sullivan Scholar and political science/Spanish major, joins an impressive group of Trumans from the university, which has been named among the most elite schools in the country for the number of Truman Scholars it has produced.

The prestigious academic award, from the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, is given to undergraduates who are preparing for careers in public service. Smith is the only Washington college student to receive the award this year.

“Olivia is extraordinarily poised, confident yet humble. She is a remarkable young woman who successfully juggles academics, community service and athletics,” says Economics Professor Bridget Hiedemann, the university’s Truman Scholar faculty representative.

As a Truman Scholar, Smith will receive a $30,000 scholarship toward graduate school and the opportunity to participate in professional development programs to prepare for a career in public service leadership. For Smith, the scholarship will help toward her goal of attending graduate school. Ultimately, she wants to return to her roots—she is a graduate of Seattle’s Cleveland High School—to work as a state prosecutor.

“I am interested in creating a new mode of thinking for state prosecutors, one that is restorative instead of punitive,” she says.

At SU, Smith has been named to the Dean’s list every year and is also an accomplished student-athlete.

In late May, Smith spoke at the Red Tie fundraising event for SU Athletics and shared how her experiences as an athlete—in high school she was a three-sport varsity athlete in cross-country, basketball and track and is on the SU rowing team—prepared her for success academically.

“Sports do not define me but they have certainly guided me. There is nothing I have accomplished in my academic or personal life that I haven’t first accomplished as an athlete,” Smith told the crowd. “Have you ever gone as hard as you could, until you couldn’t go anymore and then keep going? The stamina I use to accomplish workouts is the same stamina I used to successfully complete the Truman Scholarship application. …Have you ever persevered through a state of physical chaos and then found inner peace? It was during an athletic competition when I realized that my mind is stronger than my body.”

Giving back to the community inspires and motivates Smith, who is most active in a program called Youth Ambassadors. “It is a program that empowers youth to be the source of their own change in their community,” she says. “For example, the Youth Ambassador students at Denny Middle School in West Seattle decided to address the violence in the community by giving the Seattle Police Chief a presentation. I get to support efforts like this and help activate the compassion that already exists inside of them.”

Her work doesn’t stop there. Additionally, Smith was an intern with state Congressman Adam Smith and has done outreach with the United Way of King County, Seattle Social Venture Projects Fast Pitch and the One Equal Heart Foundation. Smith has also interned with the League of Education and volunteered at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School.

“As Olivia’s adviser, I am inspired by the ways she thoughtfully weaves together her demanding academic load and multiple service commitments to act as a catalyst for positive change in her community,” says Lindsay Leeder, College of Nursing faculty member and former director of the Sullivan Leadership Program. “She excels in the classroom and then takes her education beyond to engage as a leader working for justice.”

For Smith, being a Truman Scholar “means there are people who truly believe in my capacity to live for and with others and change the world. I do not hold that responsibility lightly. The truth is, our life is not about us—it is about someone else. We are blessed to bless someone else. We survive to inspire someone else. We fall down in order to humble ourselves to someone else. The Truman Scholarship, at the end of the day, is not about me at all.”

“I am interested in creating a new mode of thinking for state prosecutors, one that is restorative instead of punitive,” she says.