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Engineer, humanitarian wins Truman Fellowship

Alia Whitney-Johnson
Alia Whitney-Johnson
Photo / Donna Coveney

An MIT junior who launched a program to help Sri Lankan victims of rape and incest has won a 2007 Harry S Truman Scholarship, which she vows to use for graduate studies in sustainable development.

Alia Whitney-Johnson, 20, a junior majoring in environmental engineering, learned she was a winner of the $30,000 scholarship via her cell phone while walking in New York City. "I shrieked in the middle of the street; everyone stared at me," said Whitney-Johnson, laughing, who recently returned from Sri Lanka.

The Truman Scholarship is awarded to college juniors who demonstrate a sense of community and who are committed to public service.

Public service has marked Whitney-Johnson's years at MIT. As a freshman, she helped to organize "Pulse," a multimedia celebration of African-America culture. In the summer of 2005, she traveled to Sri Lanka through the MIT Public Service Center to help with tsunami relief. While there, she did some volunteer work for a home for girls, age 10 to 18, who had become mothers through rape or incest. An amateur jewelry maker herself, Whitney-Johnson decided to create a program to help the girls make their own jewelry both for extra income and a sense of accomplishment.

She returned to Sri Lanka in January 2006 to continue work on the project she named "Emerge." She also applied for an importer's license so she could bring the girls' work to the United States for sale.

More recently she has started working with a group of Sri Lankan handicapped girls to help them learn sewing skills. The girls are now making drawstring bags for the jewelry and earning money, which Whitney-Johnson has helped to bank.

Whitney-Johnson returns to Sri Lanka in May, but she is proud that Emerge is running independently. She will spend the summer in Guatemala working as an engineering intern for the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group before returning to MIT for her senior year.

She hopes to host an MIT seminar on how to design living spaces for the girls: "There is a huge need in Sri Lanka for homes for these mothers." She is anxious to get more students interested public service work, something that has profoundly affected her MIT experience.

"I'm really excited about coming back not only because I love MIT but also, I can't wait to get more students involved," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 4, 2007 (download PDF).

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