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Two W&M students awarded Udall Scholarships

  • Udall Scholar:
    Udall Scholar:  Talia Schmitt '18, an environmental community health major, is one of two recipients of the Udall Scholarship at W&M. The Udall Foundation selected 50 students nationwide with interests in the environment, Native health care or tribal public policy.  Photo by Aaron Bayles
  • Udall Scholar:
    Udall Scholar:  Mackenzie Neal '18, a government major, is W&M's first Udall Scholar to be awarded in the tribal public policy category.  Photo by Colleen Truskey '17
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Two William & Mary students are among just 50 nationwide to receive prestigious Udall Scholarships. 

Talia Schmitt ’18 and Mackenzie Neal ’18 were selected from a pool of nearly 500 applicants from 224 colleges and universities. The awards are reserved for students who intend to pursue careers related to the environment, Native health care or tribal public policy. Each student will receive up to $7,000 and will travel to Tucson, Arizona, in August to mingle with other scholars, program alumni and experts in the field. 

A first for the Tribe

Neal, a government major with a global studies minor, is W&M’s first Udall scholar in the tribal public policy category. While Neal is a member of the Quapaw Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma, she didn’t grow up on the reservation and only learned of her heritage when she was 8 or 9 — a revelation that left a big impact on her future both personally and professionally.

“I grew up completely unattached from my tribal background, but I’ve been trying to reconnect and learn the language,” said Neal. “Since then, I’ve found a lot of meaning in my tribal history. I see the struggles that my ancestors have been through and how much has gone into preserving the culture. It’s important to me to continue that.”

Since coming to W&M, Neal has proudly identified with her heritage, founding the American Indian Student Association to both educate non-Natives on American Indian culture and to connect with other students from different tribes and backgrounds. The group has hosted the William & Mary Powwow — a traditional gathering of tribal people — three years in a row, featuring authentic Native dancing, drumming and singing as well as traditional regalia, crafts and food.

“I wanted an opportunity to talk about issues affecting Native policy and to connect with people outside my tribe and people who have been raised Native since birth, because my experience has been very different from most Native students,” said Neal. 

Outside of W&M, Neal has had plenty of opportunities to meet with other Native people and learn more about tribal policy — the field she hopes to someday make her career. In 2016, Neal was a youth delegate for the White House Tribal Nations Conference, where she spoke with Native students from as far as Alaska about the distinct issues their tribes face. That same year, as an intern with the State Department, she learned how much international relations and tribal policy can overlap (as in the case of transnational pipelines, for instance). 

“It would be amazing if I could somehow act as a tribal consultant for the State Department, visiting tribes in the United States, hearing their grievances or ideas and translating that back to the State Department in a way that’s culturally relevant but also communicable and understandable to people who don’t know about tribal issues.”

Through connections made with the Udall Foundation, Neal might just be one step closer to her dream. 

“Udall chooses really smart, creative and engaged students so it will be cool to meet people like that with similar interests and career aspirations,” said Neal. 

A steward for the environment 

Though she might not have known it at the time, Schmitt began a lifelong love affair with the outdoors on a week-long camping trip in California with her 6th-grade class. 

“It was the first time I’d really spent that much time outside, and it had a huge impact on how I saw nature and respected the environment,” said Schmitt. “As I got older I realized more and more how much that opportunity influenced me.”

Schmitt was in fact so moved by the experience that she made it her mission to become the influencer, providing kids with similar opportunities and education so that they, too, can develop an early appreciation for the world around them. As the founder of Eco-Schools Leadership Initiative (ESLI), Schmitt trains high school and college students to educate elementary school students throughout Virginia about various environmental issues. The curriculum, which Schmitt developed, uses interactive games and activities to teach on topics ranging from biodiversity to renewable energy. 

“Exposure to the outdoors has proven time and time again to be very important for well-being — it reduces mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression,” said Schmitt. “And, of course, there’s also the benefit to the environment. The more kids learn the closer they are to becoming environmental stewards who share what they learn with their friends and family. That domino effect is really important.”

Schmitt, a self-designed environmental community health major, plans to focus her career on environmental education and policy. In addition to her ESLI program, Schmitt is working on a pilot program in northern Virginia that will allow elementary students to take two-three day environmental education camping trips similar to the one that impacted her as a kid. 

As a sustainable dining intern at W&M, Schmitt has been heavily involved in ensuring there are more sustainable food options in dining halls. Her initiatives have included facilitating a partnership with a local farm to procure sustainable produce and expanding composting on campus. 

“We’re really trying to improve and educate students about composting and because of that we’ve been able to reduce our waste tremendously,” said Schmitt. “Now William & Mary is actually the leading composting college in the state.” 

Schmitt said she’s most looking forward to the connections she’ll make through the Udall Foundation and the knowledge she’ll be able to leave the conference with later. 

“The Udall Scholarship will allow me to think critically about environmental issues and to brainstorm solutions to these problems with all of these bright minds who are equally as passionate about the environment as I am,” said Schmitt.