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Student focused on prison education reform named WVU’s 23rd Truman Scholar

Emma Harrison, a  West Virginia University student who found her purpose through a college internship, has been awarded the Truman Scholarship, the country’s top award for students who aspire to careers in public service. 

Emma Harrison
Emma Harrison

Harrison saw first-hand the challenges that incarcerated people face when she had an internship with the  West Virginia Innocence Project at the WVU  College of Law. When she took an “Inside-Out Prison Exchange” class with prisoners at the Federal Correctional Center in Hazelton, she saw the need and desire the men had for education. This ignited a passion to advocate for continuing education inside the system.

“Imprisoned people must have access to technology and basic skills in order to succeed when they are released,” Harrison said. “A small investment in their education will reduce recidivism, make society safer and save taxpayer money in the long-run.”

A native of Morgantown, Harrison is one of 59 Truman scholars chosen from 756 candidates for the award. She will receive a $30,000 scholarship for graduate school, the opportunity to participate in professional development programming, and become part of an influential network of nearly 4,000 scholars across the country including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and multiple members of Congress. 

“Emma’s compassion and determination to make a difference in the world is evident to all who meet her,” said  President Gordon Gee. “She represents the best in service and leadership with her work in the correctional system.”

Harrison’s commitment to those in prison did not end when the class was over. She created and taught a leadership class and another one at the Kennedy Federal Correctional Institute in Morgantown. 

“Through my interactions with my students, I have learned that being a leader is more than getting accolades or praise. It is about changing lives,” Harrison explained. “Calling them by their first name, bringing laughter into an otherwise oppressive environment and allowing them to speak freely creates an impact that makes my students feel that they are of value again. They are so much more than their conviction.”

The experience has changed the course of her life and she plans to use her Truman Scholarship to earn a graduate degree focusing on prison education. 

“Throughout a distinguished undergraduate career, Emma has demonstrated a strong commitment to public service, great leadership potential, and exceptional academic achievement—the three pillars of the Truman Scholarship,” said  Jay Cole, senior adviser to the president, WVU’s Truman representative and a 1993 Truman Scholar.” It is a joy and a privilege to welcome her into the family of Truman Scholars, both at WVU and nationally.” 

Harrison is a junior majoring in  political science and  multidisciplinary studies. She is an  Honors College student, a Milan Puskar Leadership Scholar and an Eberly Scholar which recognizes the top 25 students in the  Eberly College of Arts and Science. 

Support for this application was provided by WVU’s  ASPIRE office, which helps students pursue national awards like the Truman Scholarship. Students who are interested in learning more about scholarships, fellowships and other graduate school opportunities can schedule an appointment by emailing

Created by Congress in 1975, The Truman Foundation is a living memorial to President Harry S. Truman. The Foundation’s mission is premised on the belief that a better future relies on attracting to public service the commitment and sound judgment of bright, outstanding Americans. Harrison is the 23rd student from West Virginia University to win the prestigious award.