Skip to main content

Passion for advocacy earns student Truman Scholarship

April 06, 2010

Alyssa Bisanz has not only marched to a different drumbeat all her life, she has created her own drum corps.

As a 12-year-old discouraged by not being old enough to volunteer at a hospital, she started her own volunteer organization and nurtured it into a still-thriving group.

At 15, touched by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, she used her birthday cash to compile disaster preparedness information kits for 500 neighbors.

Now 20, the ASU junior’s remarkable commitment to action has helped her win a Truman Scholarship, the nation’s highest undergraduate leadership award. The $30,000 award is given to about 65 college juniors each year who show outstanding leadership potential, intellectual ability and the likelihood of “making a difference” in a career in public service.

A political science major, Bisanz said she hopes to use the award to attend a joint law degree and social work master’s program at Columbia, New York University, Fordham or UC Berkeley. As a student of Hispanic descent, she wants to return to Arizona to address the dismal high school drop-out problem, particularly among minorities. 

“I am concerned that more than half of minority youth do not graduate,” Bisanz said. “For me, this is more than a statistic. It characterizes the people I love the most, my family. While I’ll be the second in my mother’s family to receive a college degree, I am first and foremost a role model for my young brother and 11 cousins.”

Bisanz’s route to public service started when she was in elementary school, gathering magazines from her neighbors and taking them to a local hospital. At 12, she was still too young to be a hospital volunteer. But one February, when she saw a young girl being wheeled into the hospital’s pediatric wing, she swung into action.

She made valentines for her and dozens of other patients, and soon the compassionate youngster recruited other students to help. The effort blossomed when she founded STARS, Students Taking Action and Responsibility through Service.

The organization has an active club at Poston Junior High, and various projects are carried out each year at several local schools. Bisanz thinks community service is a key to getting young students more committed to their education and less likely to drop out.

“STARS is a part of me – it’s one of the cornerstones of my life,” she said. “After graduation, I’d like to professionalize and expand it, as a coalition of leading experts on education policy issues affecting Arizona’s youth.”

Ever a dynamo of volunteer activity, Bisanz logged over 900 hours at the Phoenix Zoo while she was at Dobson High School. A varsity tennis player and honors student, she was on the Governor’s Youth Commission, student chair of the Mesa Service Learning Board and Impact Steering Committee and on the board of directors of the national America’s Promise Alliance.

While at ASU she’s begun grant-writing for national non-profit groups. She’s also been a Capitol Scholar, held a dual internship with the College Savings Foundation and State Farm, and been a member of the State Farm Youth Advisory Board. She is enrolled in Barrett, the Honors College and in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Perhaps Alyssa’s most distinguishing characteristic is her passion for being an advocate for those causes she believes in,” said Eileen Brill Wagner, non-profit leader who mentored her in the Valley Teen Leadership program. “To be honest, I can’t imagine her choosing any other career but public service. It’s what she was born to do.”

ASU has had 16 Truman Scholars in the past 19 years – one of the best records of any public university. This year The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation selected 60 students among 576 applications from 245 colleges and universities. They will receive their awards in a special ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., on May 30.