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Islander named Truman Scholar: Katherine Warren earns rare honor
Katherine Warren says her parents blazed a trail that left her own path lit with humble inspiration.
Her dad sees it a little differently.
“I kept telling Katherine that she left me in her dust so long ago,” said Dr. Edus “Hootie” Warren, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Medicine.
“Years ago, I told her my hat is off to her,” he said.
Katherine Warren of Bainbridge Island has been named a 2012 Truman Scholar, just one of 54 college juniors this year to earn the rare honor that has gone before to such notables as George Stephanopoulos, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Warren, 22, is an anthropology major at Harvard University. This year’s awards were recently announced by Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, president of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.
Kirstin Scott, a resident tutor at Harvard’s Dunster House, said Warren quickly impressed others at the university and was a standout among the many amazing impressive students there.
As a sophomore, Warren established a young women’s mentoring program at Harvard, and was also the co-founder and director of the Akili Initiative, an online student think tank for global health.
“One of the most impressive thing about her is this humility that she exudes,” Scott said.
“It’s just a precious combination of humility and ability. She has so much promise and potential to do great things. She’s already demonstrated that she’s capable of great things,” Scott said.
Warren’s a hard worker, a natural talent and a great intellect, Scott added. And humble and unassuming, as well.
“Upon meeting her, you would never necessarily know how much she has accomplished,” she said.
“She’s going to do wonderful things in this world,” Scott said.
Warren said she was surprised by the honor, which came without warning.
She was sitting in class when she got a message on her cell phone from Harvard’s Dean of Education.
She snuck out of class, she said, with a troubling thought: “I was kicked out of school.”
The dean, though, had something else to tell her.
“I was pretty much speechless,” Warren said. “The other finalists were really incredible people.”
Truman Scholars receive up to $30,000 for graduate study from the Truman Scholarship Foundation, which was established by Congress in 1975 as a federal memorial to the 33rd President. The scholarships are supported by a special trust fund in the U.S. Treasury.
Warren is currently pursuing a degree that centers on medical anthropology.
“Right now I’m looking at adolescent suicide and mental health among Native Americans,” she explained.
That interest was sparked, she said, by growing up on Bainbridge Island, near the Suquamish Reservation.
“It’s hard to live in Washington state and not know the vast disparities that exist,” she said.
She said her work in Boston with young women made her even more committed to work on social justice issues.
“Working with them has really shown me how much more there is to health than a blood pressure or a pulse,” Warren said.
But she’s also trying to meet the standard set by her parents, both physicians, who have traveled the world to help those in need. Warren recounts how her mother, Linda Warren, went to assist in Indonesia after the devastating tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean in 2004.
“My parents have been incredible examples for me to use academic knowledge for the greater good,” she said.
Everything she has become, Warren said, she owes to her mom and dad.
“My parents are everything about the reason where I am,” she said.
“They are both incredibly passionate and generous people who have put so much — not just work, but also soul — into the things they do. They really lead by example, in terms of the legacy and change you should leave the world with.”
She also quickly recalls another of her elders; another inspiring force in her life.
“My uncle, who is one of my idols, was an Indian health surgeon and he was the one who got me hooked,” she said.
Ralph Warren worked for the Indian Health Service, and the Truman Scholar recalled her first summer while in college, going to visit him on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.
“He passed suddenly, shortly after I lived with him. I really knew right after that this was going to be my calling,” she said.
More broadly, she’s interested in the right to health.
“Health is a human right,” she said.
She took a year off from college last year to work on health policy at a small think tank in Washington, D.C. It was pretty timely, she laughed.
An energetic advocate for access to health care, she has worked on gender and disability issues in Bangladesh and mental health among American Indians. Warren was also tapped to write a report on violence against women for the United Nations.
“I love working on the ground, talking face-to-face with people. It’s pretty hard to do that in all these different contexts, hearing about both amazing people and some of the terrible things they faced in their lives and not feel a drive to do something at a larger level,” she said.
After she earns her undergraduate degree, she hopes to start a joint degree program, “and then see where my skills can best fit at that point. Hopefully among Native Americans groups in the U.S., to start with,” she said.
Warren is the oldest of three siblings; her brother Houston is in high school; her sister, Sylvia, is also attending Harvard and is a sophomore.
“She’s pretty incredible, too,” Warren said.
Outside of her work to change the world, she has a passion for the outdoors and hiking, and shares the interests of others her age. She’s a “soft rock kind of girl,” and likes Death Cab for Cutie, and The Shins, though she hesitantly admits a fondness for country music and has played the violin since her parents “finally caved” and let her have lessons when she was 5.
Her father, however, said she’s always been “a pretty serious kid.”
“She’s been reading the New York Times since she was a young kid and concerned about the world beyond Bainbridge Island and how she might ultimately play a part,” he said.
“Katherine is incredibly perceptive,” her father added. “I think she has an uncanny ability to understand and to emphasize.”
The 2012 Truman Scholars will gather on May 22 for a leadership development program at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. The awards will be presented during a special ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. on May 27.
Warren’s father noted that the honor carries the mantle of public service.
“It’s both an award and an obligation,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that it will allow her to do things and make contributions in the future that will help anybody, everybody, somebody.
“Whether she chooses to work on an Indian reservation or in Bangladesh or somewhere else, we really hope that she has the opportunity to give back,” he said.