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Sky Harper Becomes Drexel's Second-Ever Truman Scholar, First-Ever Triple Crown

April 12, 2023

President John Fry and Truman Scholar Sky Harper
President John Fry stands with Sky Harper on the day Harper was informed that he was a Truman Scholar. 

After Sky Harper, chemistry ’24, was interviewed for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, one two-word question stuck with him.

Why Drexel?

“I thought they asked because the other Arizona finalists went to college in Arizona,” said Harper, who grew up on the Navajo reservation in Ram Pasture, Arizona, before coming to Drexel in Philadelphia in 2019. “Meanwhile, I was on the other side of the country. Maybe their angle was, why would you choose Drexel, a school nobody in Arizona knows much about?”

To answer that, Harper thought back to his junior year of high school when he competed in the International Science and Engineering Fair among more than 2,000 students from over 70 countries. During the special awards ceremony, they showed a video about Drexel University and awarded eight students full scholarships to Drexel. Harper thought he heard “Sky Harbor,” the name of the nearby Phoenix airport, until he saw his name on the screen.

“At that moment I knew I would be going to Drexel,” Harper said. “Based only off my research poster and first impressions, they had essentially said they would fully support me in my undergraduate journey. I have been able to utilize so many of the resources here, and I told my interview panel if I could go back, I would still choose Drexel because of what I’ve been able to accomplish here both in STEM research and in DEI work with Native American students on campus. That’s why I took the chance and decided to go to school across the country. That’s why I chose Drexel.”

Harper just added another rare achievement to his list of accomplishments at Drexel. He was named one of the 2023 Truman Scholars, a highly competitive national fellowship honor given to about 50 students nationwide that grants them $30,000 toward three years of graduate study that leads to a career in public service.

Harper is Drexel’s second-ever student to receive the Truman scholarship, which is one of the most prestigious in the country. He was also a 2022 Goldwater Scholar, which includes STEM students intent on pursuing research-oriented careers, and a 2022 Udall Foundation Scholar, which includes students who are committed to leadership and public service in Native American nations or the environment. 

What does it mean for you to have become a Truman Scholar?

I’m pretty shocked and in disbelief, but overall, I’m just really happy and excited to see where my future leads. I’m a first-gen student and I have five younger brothers. I’m thinking, if I can do it, you guys are more than able to. One of the main motivations I have is that I’m the one paving the way for my younger brothers into higher education; let me try my best and show them that if you really want something or if you really care about something, the possibilities are endless.

Last year after applying for and receiving both the Goldwater and Udall fellowships, my adviser said there’s something known as the “Triple Crown,” when you are awarded the three specific fellowships. Since then, this has been one of my goals and after receiving the Truman Fellowship, my adviser said I was the first ever Triple Crown at Drexel, and that I was the only Triple Crown student she’d ever met. That was a big accomplishment for me, because the fellowships I applied for aren’t necessarily all in the same field. I had to really make the case that what I want to do intertwines the missions of each fellowship. The Goldwater is for STEM research whereas the Udall is heavy on issues in Native American communities, and my category was Native American health care, and the Truman is very much focused on public service, so my application was kind of nontraditional. I tried my best to convey that I want to go into a career doing research and at the same time serve Native American health care, which would be considered public service because I’ll be trying to help ease these health care disparities in low-resource communities and on the reservation through research.

What made you apply for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship?

When I was looking at fellowships to apply for and what I want to do after graduation, I was thinking about home. We don't have running water or electricity; the nearest clinic is 45 minutes away and there are just so many different health care disparities on the reservation. I thought that it doesn't look like there will be any major changes in the next few years in health care on reservations, and I have my own grandparents who are getting older, and I really want to be part of that kind of change, to improve these conditions and alleviate these disparities. It’s well-known that there are a lot of disparities on the reservation, but when it comes to advocating or allocating funds to address them, people always say there’s not enough research, there’s not enough justification for why we should allocate this money. I realized how pivotal research can be and I want to generate that knowledge that says, “Here’s why we need to address these disparities in this way.” I thought about my upbringing and research and how I could combine those to address these issues. 

What kinds of experiences helped you get to this point?

I want to thank my mentors, advisers and parents for helping me get here. Specifically, my mom and dad for always supporting and prioritizing me and my siblings' education and all the people at [Undergraduate Research and Enrichment] UREP for always supporting me in whatever capacity they can. At Drexel, one program that helped me to think about how I want to shape my future, especially in my early years, was the Aspire Scholars program through UREP. I was part of a year-long cohort my sophomore year and it was about exploring my options as a student. It was a lot of reflection about what I want to do in the future and how I can better define my goals. After that program and in every fellowship application I wrote, I found clarity and more direction in my future and life after Drexel. Looking back on the Goldwater and Udall fellowships, Goldwater had less direction and Udall was more specific, but in this application, I got down to the details of saying, “This is exactly what I want to do, and this is the path I’m going to take to get there.” 

What do you hope to achieve during the rest of your undergraduate career?

I have a few goals left. I want to apply for the NIH Oxford/Cambridge Fellowship and get into a prestigious MD/PhD program, and complete UREP’s SuperNova program. I also founded a student organization at Drexel called Drexel Indigenous Students of the Americas (DISA) and we’re now a strong organization, but I want to solidify that before I graduate so that even when I leave, it’ll still be here and it will still be serving Indigenous students on campus.

What will graduate school look like for you?

I want to do a dual degree MD/PhD program, where you do two years of medical school, then four years of the PhD, and you end again with two years of medical school. It’s another eight years, but for me, I keep thinking, ‘What else am I going to do for the rest of my life but work? I can put that off for another eight years.’ I’ve been having conversations with admissions directors at Johns Hopkins, but I’m also going to apply for the Mayo Clinic and to Drexel.

Another fellowship that I'm looking at is the NIH Oxford-Cambridge program. I would apply for regular MD/PhD programs, and when I get accepted to the fellowship and graduate schools, I would go to medical school where I got accepted, but then complete the PhD portion at Oxford or Cambridge, an accelerated, individualized doctoral training program for outstanding science students committed to biomedical research careers. It’s a very competitive program, but I’m just hoping that each of these fellowships I was awarded will bolster my application and make me stand out again.

What’s your career end goal?

After grad school I want to get experience at the NIH because they have this research structure called CBPR, or community-based participatory research. This structure takes into account all the constituents and makes sure everybody’s needs are met, and that researchers and community members are on equal ground.

NIH has another office called the Native American Research Centers for Health (NARCH) that I actually wrote about expanding in my application. In my opinion, it is not working to the best capacity it can, so I want to get experience at the NIH and try to improve it from the inside. After getting that experience, I want to go back to my own reservation and start a research center focused on these health disparities and do research in my community, with my community, at every single stage. I hope to collaborate with and bring in other Indigenous scholars and researchers and pave the way to building the and eventually spread this innovation to other low-resource communities that face a myriad of disparities from historical trauma.