HARTFORD, CT, May 8, 2014 – Salima Etoka ’15, a QuestBridge Scholar and native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been awarded a prestigious Truman Scholarship for 2014, one of only 59 college students in the country and the first Trinity student to be selected in 28 years.
The names of the 59 winners, chosen from a pool of 655 candidates nominated by 293 colleges and universities, were announced recently by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, president of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. The students will be given their awards – up to $30,000 for graduate study -- in a ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, on May 25.
A resident of Boise, Idaho, who is studying this semester in Senegal, Etoka is majoring in urban studies, political science and French, and is particularly interested in immigrant and refugee rights and diaspora communities.
Etoka learned of her selection in an email from Trinity President James F. Jones, Jr., after she had returned to Senegal having finished the interviewing process in Washington D.C. “It was totally unexpected and I thought I would have to wait a little longer before hearing,” she said. “I was very excited and thankful.”
Etoka was born in Bukavu, Congo, and lived there for nine years. Her family immigrated to the United States in 2002 and settled in Idaho. Five years later, she became an American citizen, and is the only college student from Idaho to have been chosen as a Truman Scholar for 2014.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I am proud of my heritage and upbringing,” Etoka said in an email from Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where she is studying. “Although I haven’t been back to Congo since we left, I consider myself Congolese and the years I spent there influenced who I am today. My time in Idaho also shaped me. The community we found when we arrived in the States really provided me the opportunities to do well, go to Trinity and then be able to travel the world and continue with my education.”
Having never traveled further east than Wisconsin, Etoka said curiosity and a desire to attend a small liberal arts college on the East Coast led her to Trinity. QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization that connects low-income, high-achieving students with America’s best colleges and universities, also played a major role, matching her with Trinity. The decision to study here is one that she treasures, even though she never set foot on the campus until the day she arrived for Orientation.
Though only a junior, Etoka has left her mark on campus and with staff and faculty. “Salima is a gifted leader who has a presence that, uniquely, is both warm and commanding. As a Quest liaison through QuestBridge and a volunteer for multicultural recruitment efforts in the Admissions Office, she has selflessly contributed much of her time to help maintain a welcoming environment for prospective, admitted and current students. Her positive energy and sense of purpose truly stand out,” said Anthony Berry, senior associate director of admissions and coordinator of multicultural recruitment.
Conversely, Etoka cited several professors who have been particularly inspirational during her stay here. For example, Xiangming Chen, dean of the Center for Urban and Global Studies, and Garth Myers, Paul E. Rather Distinguished Professor of Urban International Studies, piqued her interest in studying cities.
“They made me realize that by specializing in urban studies, I could take courses from different departments and then study abroad to match the theories we studied with real-life experiences,” she said.
And she noted that Karen Humphreys, principal lecturer in language and culture studies, helped revive her interest in French, while the “Politics of Developing Countries,” taught by Brigitte Schulz, professor of political science, emerita, “forced me to examine the multi-layers of the term development and begin to construct the context for understanding the history, current politics and future endeavors for countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia.”
Etoka has availed herself of Trinity’s study away programs. During the summer of 2013, she went to Kunming, China, as part of Trinity’s “River Cities of Asia” Program, which examined issues of development, water and culture. The group visited Shanghai, Kunming and Dali in China and Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos. She also spent a semester at Trinity’s Paris campus and is now in Dakar in a program run by the Council on International Educational Exchange.
“I wanted to be in French speaking cities where I would be forced to use French in my daily life,” said Etoka. “While I thought that I would love being in Europe for the first time, I also knew that I wanted to go back to Africa.”
Etoka said she applied for a Truman Scholarship because she’s long been interested in working in the public sector. Filling out the paperwork forced her to focus on what she’d like to do after graduation, and as far off as five to 10 years. One of her options is working on issues related to the empowerment of women, immigrant and refugee rights and the Congo.
With the monetary award for graduate school, Etoka said she’s considering the London School of Economics, where she would study urbanization and development, or Columbia University, where she would focus on urban policy. As a Truman Scholar, students can study at any college or university around the world as long as the program is connected to the work they want to do after getting their advanced degree. Ultimately, Etoka would like to get her Ph.D. in urban policy or urban studies.
At Trinity, Etoka has been involved with Chapel activities, the Interfaith House and helping low-income and first-generation students adjust to college life and their coursework. She’s a member of the gospel choir and has been a summer tour guide. She’s also assisted other QuestBridge Scholars on campus and nationally.
Etoka said that some day she would like to return to Africa, and especially Congo, not just to visit but possibly to live and work.
“As of right now, I don’t know…the path that my life will take but I’m open to going to other countries and working with the local people.”
Of the experience of applying for the Truman Scholarship, Etoka said it has given her the opportunity to think carefully about her heritage, her support system, her education and the future.
“Whatever I end up doing is about giving back and passing on the qualities of a great support system that makes anything possible.”