Emory student named 2020 Truman Scholar for promoting economic justice

By Senta Scarborough | April 16, 2020

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A Woodruff Scholar in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Josh Kaplan is pursuing an economics major and Portuguese minor. He is Emory’s third Truman Scholar in the past four years.

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Josh Kaplan, an Emory University junior from Phoenix, Arizona, has been named a 2020 Harry S. Truman Scholar for his work promoting economic justice for marginalized communities. 

He is among only 62 college students in the United States to receive the highly competitive national honor, which is bestowed upon exceptional students in their junior year who have displayed outstanding leadership, academic excellence and a commitment to a life of public service. 

“We are all thrilled for Josh. He represents the very best of Emory, and he is poised to be a transformational leader for social justice in the world,” says Emory President Claire E. Sterk.

A student in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Kaplan is pursuing an economics major and Portuguese minor. He is Emory’s third Truman Scholar in the past four years. As part of the award, administered by the Harry S. Truman Foundation, he will receive $30,000 toward his graduate studies and professional development for a public service career.

A new academic path

A Robert W. Woodruff Scholar, Kaplan wanted a challenge when he arrived at Emory. Rather than continue studying Spanish, he enrolled in a Portuguese class and spent the summer after his first year on Emory’s summer study abroad program at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. The experience changed the course of his studies and future career. 

“In São Paulo, he improved his language skills and learned how to become critically engaged with the space and people,” says Ana Teixeira, director of Emory’s Portuguese program and his faculty adviser. 

Kaplan signed up for an upper level, intensive writing class, Luso-African Texts and Cultures. Teixeira expected him to do well in her class but thought he might struggle with writing about complex subjects in Portuguese. Most students who take the class are seniors. Kaplan was in the spring semester of his sophomore year.

“Goodness, I was wrong. He would edit his papers over and over. I saw tremendous growth. I looked forward to reading his journals and what he had to say,” Teixeira says. “He knows things take time, and he dedicates himself to give the best he has to offer. In that sense, he is an example to all of us."

That summer, Kaplan put those newly minted language skills and experiences in Latin America to work as a foreign policy research analyst in the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

He conducted his own research on the impact of deforestation on indigenous peoples and small farmers in the Amazon, and drafted his own policy recommendations on ways to invest in those communities.  

“Marginalized communities wield significant power and play a crucial role in conservation efforts, yet they are often sidelined in policy decisions,” Kaplan says.

While at the Wilson Center, Kaplan also conducted research on the impact of economic policies for Brazilian working-class families, performing two extensive literature reviews and mapping Uber drivers’ opinions of class mobility and economic opportunity. 

“He is already at a level I would associate with a graduate student,” says Benjamin Junge, a 2007 graduate of Emory’s Laney Graduate School, who supervised Kaplan and is an associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York. “His interest in economics is not at a statistical or macro level. It is about policies that are designed to reduce poverty and inequality. It’s a clear passion.”

That passion for making a difference without seeking the limelight shines through in all of Kaplan’s work. He went of his way to mentor fellow Emory students, even while he was studying in London, says Ed Goode, associate director of the Emory Scholars program.

“He is the kind of person I trust in power,” Goode says. “He hasn't used his hard-earned, full-ride scholarship to play it safe. He’s taken academic risks and seized opportunities to expand his world.”

Kaplan spent most of his junior year at the London School of Economics and Political Science, studying Latin American economic history. There, he examined the unique development challenges facing Brazil, and the country’s vital role within the regional and global economy. 

His natural integrity, astute awareness of his strengths and weaknesses and sense of responsibility make him a stand out among a very strong cohort of American, British and European college students, says Alejandra Irigoin, LSE associate professor of economic history. 

“He is doing his best and trying a bit harder always. This is the edge he has,” she says. “The world would need a lot (more people) like him to run this mess we’re in.”

A passion for public service

At the heart of all his academic pursuits is Kaplan’s clear commitment to raising the voices of those who most often go unheard. 

In high school, Kaplan founded GOALS (Giving Opportunities to All who Love Soccer), a nonprofit soccer program for youth with intellectual disabilities. In part because of his work with GOALS, Kaplan was recognized with the merit-based Bryan Cameron Impact Scholarship. Since he also received a full ride as a Woodruff Scholar, he didn’t need the financial assistance, but that didn’t stop him from building a family of Cameron Impact Scholars, says Amie Lucas, the foundation’s executive director.

Kaplan launched Cameron Connects, a scholar-led webinar series for seniors going through the application process. He successfully developed and moderated it last year and is now mentoring younger scholars to continue it. 

“He is such an important part of our community,” Lucas says. “He is one of these beautiful souls who loves people and is a champion for everyone.” 

At Emory, Kaplan has utilized the business skills he honed through GOALS as part of Emory Consult Your Community, a student-led organization that provides free consulting services to minority and women-owned small businesses in Atlanta.

One client was Global Dialogues, a human rights advocacy nonprofit which strengthens and amplifies the voices of marginalized youth through film. Kaplan, then a CYC business analyst and later its vice president of development, helped Global Dialogues create a sustainable fundraising model and streamline its digital content.

“It is rare to find someone who combines classic academic intelligence, which Josh quite evidently has in mega doses, with such an acute interpersonal intelligence,” Global Dialogues Executive Director Dan Enger says. “He is the kind of person who, when he walks in the room, injects positive energy and you get the sense this is going to be a human-enriching experience because of the beautiful nature of the man.”

During his first year at Emory, Kaplan’s interests began to focus on economic development. He joined Plan International USA, a nonprofit humanitarian and development organization focusing on children and young women, where he serves on its Youth Advisory Board.

“He recognizes the importance of bringing people together, diversity of experiences and opinions and the impact of collective effort,” says Kate Ezzes, Plan International USA’s director of youth and economic empowerment. 

Kaplan also serves as a leader in the development of its annual Youth Leadership Academy, a summer program for high school students to learn about and take on global issues in their schools and communities. He helps hire staff, plan sessions, recruit youth and identify speakers. Kaplan also oversees the development of a youth-led mentorship program that provides an additional year of support to YLA participants.

“YLA participants are collaborating with local governments to tackle a wide range of systemic issues within their communities, from voter suppression to climate change,” Kaplan says. “By placing young people at the center of decision-making processes, the YLA has become a powerful tool for economic development.”

A new virtual world, at least for now, and looking ahead 

This semester, Kaplan was studying in London when he learned he was a Truman Scholar finalist. He flew to Emory in March for interview preparations and then on to Phoenix, for the interview. The day of the interview, Kaplan learned that Emory was suspending study abroad programs because of the COVID-19 health crisis.

As the deadline for the announcement of the Truman Scholars approached, Kaplan was anxious. Previous winners had typically been notified in person by Emory’s president, but all his classes were online. 

Instead, Kaplan received an email from Megan Friddle, director of Emory’s National Scholarships and Fellowships Program, requesting a brief “check in” via Zoom. He wondered if he might get the news. When the time came to dial in, he went to the kitchen and opened his computer. 

“When I joined the Zoom call, I immediately saw President Sterk and Dean [Michael] Elliott, who surprised me with the news,” he says. “My entire family was just off camera, silently dancing and cheering.”

After Kaplan graduates next year, he plans to pursue concurrent master’s degrees in international economics and Latin American studies before entering a career in economic policy with the U.S. State Department. 

“Winning the Truman Scholarship is such an honor,” Kaplan says. “I am excited to be part of this incredible group of students who have dedicated their lives to public service.”