In a major academic triumph, Gurtaran Johal, a junior sociology and political science major in the College of Liberal Arts, has won one of only 62 Truman Scholarships for 2021. The most prestigious American undergraduate award, the Truman Scholarship recognizes leadership skills, commitment to public service, and academic excellence, and provides up to $30,000 for a public service-related graduate degree.
Fargo, North Dakota resident Johal has served as a student representative to the President's Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct and in numerous other roles at the U of M. Here she takes us a on a brief tour of her life and high—very high—aspirations.
What was your early home life like?
Raising me as a Sikh woman, my parents taught me that one of the primary tenets of the faith is that women deserve equal opportunities to achieve their ambitions. This gave me the courage to take risks and pursue my aspirations. My passion for women’s rights is built upon this foundation.
What sparked your interest in political science and sociology?
In high school I was a quiet person, so I decided to join the school’s speech, debate, and student congress teams. These activities helped me find my voice and gain a better understanding of how to find common ground when collaborating with individuals who hold opposing viewpoints. High school forensics sparked my interest in the law and fighting for social issues.
Why did you choose the University of Minnesota?
From its hundreds of student groups to its research opportunities, the University provides unlimited experiences for all students. Its mission of discovery drew me in as someone who is constantly looking to learn and grow. Most importantly, the University has a community for everyone, and this allows the institution to be a home for all students.
What have you enjoyed or benefited from most as an undergraduate?
I’ve served as a member and chair of the Minnesota Student Association’s Sexual Assault Task Force and taken the lead on the “It Ends Here” campaign, an initiative informed through diverse student organizations. I have worked with incredible student advocates on pushing state legislation to extend medical amnesty to victim-survivors, fighting against the recent Title IX changes by the Department of Education, and ensuring transparency in employers’ use of coercive contracts. Sociology professors Ann Meier and Michelle Phelps and administrator Alicia Leizinger (Boynton Health Service) have been particularly supportive and helpful in listening to the student voice and allowing me a seat at the table to fight for students. Lastly, I’ve met wonderful peers and friends.
What will your Truman Scholarship allow you to do?
The scholarship provides the financial means to pursue my law degree in Public Interest or Criminal Justice Law. I hope to center my work around violence against women, equal educational opportunities for young girls, and equality in the workplace, and to develop strong community coalitions advocating for gender equity. I aspire to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals and, ultimately, be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
What do you do to relax?
I absolutely love weightlifting and enjoy watching basketball. I have loved going to Gopher and Timberwolves games, and can’t wait to be back in the arenas.