Awesome Awardee: W. Va. Student Who Stood Up For Separation Wins Prestigious Scholarship

A young activist who challenged the Religious Right at her high school three years ago gets some good news.

This blog is often the bearer of bad news – we may report about a public school district trying to teach creationism, an attack on LGBT rights by a Religious Right group, an effort by a large and powerful church to secure tax funding for its private school system, etc.

But today’s story is good news. It may, in fact, even warm your heart a little.

Let’s set the stage a bit: In April of 2013, a senior at George Washington High School in Charleston, W.Va., was dismayed after school officials invited a speaker to come in and talk about “God’s plan for sexual purity.”

The student, Katelyn Campbell, knew this wasn’t right. And indeed, speaker Pam Stenzel offered a mishmash of right-wing theology, bad science and shaming tactics in her lecture. At one point she reportedly told the girls present, “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.”

It later came to light that Stenzel, a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and an anti-abortion activist with no special training in human sexuality, had been brought to the school at the urging of an outfit called Believe in West Virginia. This group describes itself as “a Christ-centered catalyst helping transform the economic, political, social and spiritual environment of West Virginia, there­by communicating hope and a bright­er future for all.”

Many students were understandably upset by Stenzel’s remarks. A lot of them probably sent some angry tweets or posted to Facebook about the event. Campbell decided to do more. She called a press conference and challenged Principal George Aulenbacher to explain why this overtly religious speaker with bad information was invited to the school. She also took the issue to the school board.

The incident made national headlines, and Campbell was featured on the cover of Church & State in June of 2013. At the time, she had already gained admission to Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Aulenbacher was so angry at her that he threated to call the school and urge officials there to revoke Campbell’s admission.

Aulenbacher later said he didn’t mean it, and of course it was an empty threat anyway. Officials at Wellesley were quick to express their support for Campbell and issued a text saying they looked forward to having her on campus.

It looks like Wellesley’s decision to welcome Campbell has paid off. Campbell has just been awarded a Truman Scholarship, one of the nation’s most prestigious academic honors. (A hat tip to the Friendly Atheist blog for first reporting this story.)

Truman Scholarships are awarded annually to college juniors nationwide. Awardees must first be nominated by their colleges. Academic achievement is taken into account as are factors such as leadership and community service. The $30,000 scholarships are put toward graduate education.

These scholarships are highly competitive. This year, 775 students from 305 colleges and universities applied. Fifty-four students, representing 47 institutions, were awarded scholarships.

The website of the Truman Scholarship says its awardees are “change agents” and goes on to describe them like this: “They have the passion, intellect, and leadership potential that in time should enable them to improve the ways that public entities – be they government agencies, nonprofit organizations, public and private educational institutions, or advocacy organizations – serve the public good.”

Campbell is majoring in American Studies with a concentration in history at Wellesley. According to the Truman Scholarship Foundation’s website, after graduation she “plans to return to West Virginia to work in community development and reproductive health advocacy.”

That state will benefit much if she follows through with that plan. Keep your eye on this young woman. I suspect we’ll be hearing more from her in the future.