U student earns prestigious Truman Foundation award

by Kristin Gustafson

Growing up with parents who didn’t speak English, Piyali Nath Dalal has learned the numerous doors literacy can open for a person.
The most recent door opened two weeks ago when Dalal received the $30,000 Truman Foundation Scholarship.
Although developing a literacy institute is her long-term goal, the award allows Dalal to pursue her educational dreams first.
The English and international relations junior was one of 61 winners of the lucrative Truman scholarship.
The monetary award is split up over the next few years. She receives $3,000 for her senior year at the University and an additional $27,000 for two or three years of graduate study in government or public service. Dalal said she hopes to get a master’s degree in education and a doctorate in English.
It is unusual for an English student to get the Truman scholarship because of its public affairs focus, said Beverly Atkinson, Dalal’s mentor and associate director of English undergraduate studies.
But Dalal has linked her interests in educational methods and international relations with global literacy.
Immigration services, citizenship tests and how native and immigrant children learn best are all issues Dalal addresses day to day as a children’s literacy tutor at the Jane Addams School for Democracy. The school brings multicultural education issues into the political sphere.
Jane Addams school is based on a learning approach that considers everyone a contributor and a resource. It teaches citizenship, language acquisition and culture through public works projects and intergenerational learning groups of immigrants, children and high school and college students.
“A really big hope of mine is to develop a literacy institute like this where the University and the community connect,” Dalal said.
The scholarship might help her get closer to that goal.
Dalal was selected from among 599 nationally nominated scholarship candidates. Winners were selected based on leadership potential, intellectual ability and the likelihood of “making a difference.”
Prior to this award, Dalal has won numerous University academic scholarships and recognition — including an uninterrupted position on the College of Liberal Arts dean’s list since her freshman year.
Dalal also works as a writing consultant and peer adviser for English students, volunteers for the AIDSRide Project, facilitated a literacy initiative for Bengali youth in India and has studied creative writing and theatre in London, Wales, Scotland and France. She is a Board of Regents student representative and the International Study and Travel Center’s treasurer.
But awards and hierarchical achievements are not what make Dalal’s voice rise with excitement.
It is just the opposite.
Education based on shared power — a giving and taking of cultural experiences — interests Dalal so much that she has stayed on as a Jane Addams tutor for three years.
Dalal’s parents, who immigrated from India to the United States before she was born, spoke Bengali at home.
Democratic education “made me look back to my experience of being a child of immigrants and what a difficult process it was being in a home where English was not spoken,” she said.
Making classrooms safer, removing hierarchies, using collaborative teaching tools and assignments focusing on subjects students are passionate about improve participation and learning, Dalal said. And it makes for a more equal society, she added.
Atkinson, Dalal’s mentor, said cultural and reading literacy “is important for people to feel empowered to participate in community, regional and national decision-making no matter what country they are in.”
Dalal “has had a profound impact on me personally” and made her more aware of cultures, Atkinson said.
“She’s one of those people that can listen very intently and very carefully and then immediately and articulately provide a critique … in such a way that does not exclude or insult,” she said.
Atkinson predicted Dalal will develop democracy learning groups after completing her education — whether that be at an institutional or grass-roots level. And whether Dalal sticks with English studies, education pedagogy or goes into public affairs, she will do it well, she said.
“She will make full use of this scholarship, and she will make a difference,” Atkinson said.

Kristin Gustafson covers University administration and federal government and welcomes comments at [email protected]