From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Briana Bowen

Briana Bowen is the first Utah State University student awarded the Truman Scholarship since 1984.

Honor and Responsibility

By Kristen Munson

If you only had 100 years to change the world, why wait another day? That’s how Briana Bowen has approached her life since being diagnosed with thyroid cancer her freshman year at Utah State. She was lucky. The mysterious lump in her throat was caught early—and she had the health insurance to do something about it. Those facts are not impervious to the political science major. Afterward Bowen’s worldview shifted.

“Life became much more of a tangible journey,” Bowen said. “I have 80 years left to change the world and I don’t want to waste my time.” Her experience undergoing treatment for cancer coincided with the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010—the first major overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system since 1965. Since entering remission Bowen’s attention has focused on healthcare policy in the United States.

“I was really fortunate,” she said. “It was the most merciful diagnosis one can get. My parents had excellent health insurance. But what happens to people who don’t?”

In 2011, Bowen worked as a public policy intern with the Health Leadership Council, a healthcare advocacy group in Washington, D.C., to find out. She attended Congressional Committee meetings, tracked legislative developments, and studied the gaps in health insurance systems.

“I think it’s a good sign when something this nuts and bolts [oriented] captures your interest,” she said.

Bowen’s resume is an exhaustive list of accomplishments and volunteerism: regional field director for the Scott Howell for U.S. Senate Campaign in 2012; president of the USU College Democrats; lobbying chair for the USU Government Relations Council; Honors student; undergraduate teaching assistant; and survivor chair for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life. She represented Utah State at the Democratic National Convention in the fall and attended the U.S. Presidential Inauguration as a civilian security captain with the U.S. Secret Service in January.

“She’s all over the place,” said Michael Lyons, associate professor of political science.

He has worked with Bowen since her first semester when his teaching assistants repeatedly flagged her work as best in the class. Lyons pulled her aside and let her know her work was noticed and appreciated.

“She is intellectually gifted, self-confident, independent, and disciplined—the whole package,” he said. “She’s not just a grind it out 4.0 A plus student.” (Which she is.) However, Lyons points to her willingness to work with people who have differences in opinion as one of her best qualities.

“It is something I admire and respect about her,” he said. “She’s very good at dealing with people who think differently. She’s respectful. She reaches out.”

That should serve her well on Capitol Hill. Upon graduating from Utah State, Bowen intends to earn a master’s in public policy and continue on to Washington, D.C., to devote her life to public service. Her love for the city goes “beyond the sparkly marble walls,” she said. “It is the place where the country invests its trust in its leaders. Government is not just crazy elections; it’s the policies that shape things.”

Bowen was the university’s nominee for a 2013 Truman Scholarship, an award which comes with a $30,000 prize for graduate study, a strong career network for public servants, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation was created through an Act of Congress in 1974 as a living memorial to honor the nation’s 33rd president and support the next generation of public servants and nonprofit leaders.

The 2013 Truman Scholars were selected from a field of 629 candidates nominated by 293 colleges and universities. Recipients were evaluated on the basis of academic and leadership accomplishments and the likelihood of becoming public service leaders. Bowen’s application included a proposal addressing the fiscal sustainability of Medicare.

She outlined a series of recommendations designed to cut program costs and create additional revenue streams to keep the program solvent. Her plan called for gradually raising the payroll tax for both employers and employees .4 percent over a period of four years; increasing income-related premiums on affluent seniors; and enabling the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate costs with pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s not uncomplicated,” Bowen admitted.

But it’s also personal.

“Health policy is to me a great deal more than projections and statistical models––it is the grand national framework that determines whether or not some 20-year-old college students get a shot at the other four fifths of their lives,” she wrote in her application. “That is a cause to which I find my career worth dedicating.”

In April, Utah State President Stan Albrecht called her into his office under the guise of discussing the Honor’s Program. Inside several of Bowen’s professors emerged to alert her she was one of 62 students awarded a Truman Scholarship. Among those present was Lyons and Susan Andersen, a lecturer in the English department who teaches the Honors course Preparing for Scholarships, Fellowships, and Graduate School Applications. She coached Bowen through the essay writing process and recalls when Bowen was announced as the fourth Truman Scholar in USU history—the university’s only female recipient—and the first winner since 1984.

“It was just such an exciting moment,” Andersen said. “It comes with a responsibility, too.”

One of the conditions for accepting a Truman Scholarship is a commitment to work in public service for three years after completing a graduate degree funded by the award. Since her bout with cancer, Bowen has felt public service is her calling. She believes it is how she will make the greatest impact.

For instance, in fall 2012 she worked as a regional field director for Scott Howell’s senate bid against Orrin Hatch. While Bowen had no delusions the campaign would be easy or even victorious, she signed on for the position because she felt it would make a difference regardless of the outcome.

“We thought we might be able to change the climate a little bit,” Bowen said. “It was remarkable to see how many people were concerned about the gridlock in Washington.”

She aims to bring pragmatism to the capital. She believes that is the mark of good leadership. “Conflict will happen, disagreements in belief will happen; however, you still need to work together, you still need to compromise,” she said. “It’s better to take one step forward than nothing at all. My own personal worldview is 20 percent idealism—raw unfettered idealism—10 percent absolute cynicism, and 70 percent pragmatism. At the end of every bill that comes out of committee is someone like me.”

While Bowen is focused on healthcare policy now, she also has interests in law enforcement and national security. Her Honors thesis analyzes the intersection between the Secret Service and executive privilege. The Truman Scholarship will help serve as a bridge between opportunities Bowen pursues—whatever those may be.

“I am really not closing doors,” she said. “It was reinforced to me that this award doesn’t really belong to me. It’s not about advancing one person’s career. It’s an investment in the future.”