Published March 28, 2016
Madelaine Britt, UB’s latest Harry S. Truman Scholarship finalist, feels a pit in her stomach when she compares her life to many others’ she has seen in her young life.
Her mother grew up impoverished — her grandmother is too good a storyteller to let her forget that. The people she has worked with live in poor neighborhoods with substandard housing and face the daily problems of living in poverty.
Yet, her life has been spared.
“So there is this pit in my stomach,” says Britt, a double major in environmental design and political science. “I really can’t explain it. I get so upset and frustrated that that can exist for someone else — that it does exist for someone else — and it doesn’t exist for me. And the privilege I have and have had in my life has made it possible for me not to experience that. But the privilege I have, I didn’t really earn. And that’s not fair.”
It wasn’t until she started getting involved in the community that the pit begin to go away.
“It started to dissolve a little bit,” she says. “It was like, OK, at least now I’m a small part of a larger solution and not feeling like I’m part of that system that allows for that to continue.
“I wish there was another way to say it,” she says. “But that’s how it feels. It starts to go away. I don’t know if it will ever go away because I am working on it on a very small level. But it’s not this feeling of ‘That’s someone else’s problem.’ Because it’s everyone’s problem.”
For Britt, relieving herself of that pit in her stomach has led to a stunning and exhausting-sounding track record of academic achievement and community activism. She is on the Dean’s List. She’s a Western New York Prosperity Fellow. She co-founded the University Community Laboratory, or CoLab, with community activist Joseph Kurtz to provide free, skill-based training classes for University Heights residents.
Britt, still only 20 years old, organized a hugely successful volunteer fair while a summer associate for AmeriCorps Vista working at Rochester Cares, a non-profit agency that connects volunteers with agencies that need their help. The volunteer fair is now an annual event. She served as student sustainability coordinator with Campus Dining & Shops. She also helped start a tenant association while working as an intern for the Southeast Neighborhood Service Center in Rochester.
So far, dissolving that disturbing pit in her stomach has done Britt — and the many others she has tried to serve — a lot of good.
Britt’s status as a Truman Scholarship finalist is the latest honor for UB’s Office of Nationally Competitive Fellowships and Scholarships, which encourages and prepares students who would be strong candidates for these prestigious honors.
“Madelaine is such a genuine person,” says Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator of fellowships and scholarships at UB, whose office has dramatically increased the number of UB students applying for and receiving national and international scholarships.
Colucci’s office has fostered a significant increase in the number of UB undergraduates chosen for nationally competitive scholarships: In the past three years, UB students have received three Goldwater Scholarships, a Boren Scholarship, a Marshall Scholarship, two Fulbright English Teaching Assistantships and a Critical Language Scholarship. If Britt wins, she will be the first Truman Scholar in UB history.
“Madelaine is a leader, activist and scholar who is very impressive, yet immensely humble,” Colucci says. “Her studies and work are all important to her because she’s working to protect and empower people in impoverished neighborhoods. It’s rare to meet a college student so invested in protecting the rights of communities by creating a dialogue of respect.”
The Truman Scholarship, one of the premier national awards available to college students, targets individuals aiming to be leaders and agents of change in the public sector, which includes education, government and non-profit work.
Britt is among 197 Truman Scholarship finalists from 130 colleges and universities selected for their records of leadership, public service and academic achievement from among almost 775 applications from 305 institutions.
The Truman committee will select between 55 and 65 juniors who each will receive a $30,000 scholarship to pursue graduate work in public service. Britt will interview with the Truman Foundation Regional Review Panel on March 31 in New York City. Winners will be announced by April 15.
Before that interview, Britt had to go through four (some applicants have called them “frightening”) mock interviews with UB professors and administrators who simulate conditions the finalists will face by the actual interviewing committee.
Britt’s passion and commitment are focused. It’s all about urban revitalization activism centered on community-oriented solutions. She says she would like to work in the District of Columbia’s Department Housing and Community Development, eventually earning a dual degree in urban planning and law. She is determined to help low-income people find access to safe and affordable housing. She then wants to return to Rochester, which she considers her hometown, and run for the Rochester City Council. Her political agenda:
“Economic development within the urban core is failing to improve the overall economic security of low-income residents and is displacing them,” she says. “I will advocate for smart-planning techniques, affordable housing opportunities and economic growth in the struggling urban core and in the neighborhoods often overshadowed.
“We have to make sure this revitalization and this economic prosperity actually spread throughout the entire community.”
There’s a lot more to Britt. She has this disarming conversational habit of starting her answer to questions she likes with, “Yeah, yeah,” to let you know she gets what you’re asking. Or interjecting her sentences with an equally disarming laugh that often comes while she finishes her sentences. She starts talking really quickly within the laugh, a speaking trait she is working on for her Truman interview. Her favorite movie is “Amelie,” a French film about a young woman who cultivates her confidence by putting herself in new experiences and coming out ahead.
“Yeah, YEAH!” she says, with that laugh. “They’re really entwined with my work. That’s where my social network lies. But I really like walking around the city (more laughing), which sounds like it’s not very fun. But I just enjoy doing that.”
The photo used for this story?
“My friend took that a while ago, and she was making me laugh,” which is followed by ample laughing. “So …”
A graduate of Marcellus High School near Syracuse and the daughter of Margaret and Eric Britt, she talks in her signature impassioned and almost soliloquy-ready way about her maternal grandmother, Virginia Helms, now 85, who was “very good at telling stories” that would transport her to another time and place. Britt started her college career as a journalist, so she is no storytelling slouch, either.
Virginia Helms’ husband left her after she moved to Rochester from Philadelphia, leaving her to care for their four children alone, her granddaughter says.
“She’ll tell you how tough it was getting by as a single mom and how simpler it was when she was a kid,” Britt wrote in her Truman application. “She’ll follow that with a story about the time she got hit by a car when she was 8 years old, putting things in perspective.
“Virginia’s youngest child is my mother. My mother will tell me about what it meant to grow up in her household. She’ll tell me about being a latchkey kid, walking two miles from the bus stop with fists full of groceries, climbing through the second-story window to avoid a landlord, and trying to hide every time my grandmother took out the food stamps in the grocery line.
“She’ll point to an empty parking lot on Avenue D where one of her family’s apartments used to be, now with crumbled and boarded houses surrounding it. I didn’t grow up poor. I never worried about when my mom would come home from her job, if the bus would be late, or the look on the cashier’s face as my family received public assistance. I come from financial stability and I can’t pretend that I know firsthand what it’s like to be impoverished.
“I pursue public service almost selfishly. I don’t understand why I’ve been fortunate to receive what I have. I can picture my mother there, and I realize that I’m separated by just a generation.
“A career in community development allows me to feel in some strange way a sort of control of the situation, giving me the ability to feel as if I’m part of a solution for mothers and grandmothers like my own. It hammers away at that pit in my stomach, and reminds me of the importance of knowing where you come from and where you need to take your story next.”
Britt, you are to be deeply congratulated for being of great help and service to the less affluent. I mean that sincerely.
Unselfishness is a trait that will serve you throughout life, but also keep in mind that you are not obligated to sacrifice yourself beyond your means or energy, or indefinitely. Public service can be very rewarding, but also demanding, and you are entitled to your own happiness as well.
Just pay attention to what your heart tells you as you continue on your journey. Best of luck.