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Diego Sarmiento wins Truman Scholarship, becomes 1st UCLA recipient since 2009

Diego Sarmiento, the UCLA recipient of the Truman Scholarship, is pictured outside Campbell Hall. (Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin)

By Celia Powers

May 7, 2024 8:31 p.m.

Diego Sarmiento sat down at the beginning of a lecture and checked his email.

“I didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t focus for the whole rest of the lecture,” said Sarmiento, a third-year political science and public affairs student.

He had just won the Truman Scholarship.

“I had to get the notes from someone else,” he said. “I sent it to my parents, and it was such a good feeling.”

The national scholarship is an award for students preparing for careers in the public service or nonprofit sectors, said Rebecca Blustein, the assistant director of the Center for Scholarships and Scholar Enrichment. It provides $30,000 toward the costs of attending graduate school, programming and mentorship opportunities and a direct connection to the federal government, according to the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation website.

Sarmiento was one of 60 students across the country chosen to receive the Truman Scholarship this year, making him UCLA’s sixth recipient ever and the first student at the university to receive the award since 2009. The scholarship committee looks for candidates who exhibit strong leadership skills and have a background in community engagement, Blustein said.

Sarmiento said he first became involved in community organizing when he was in high school in Santa Ana, California. He canvassed for local candidates in the 2020 election, said his sister Dahlia Sarmiento.

“It was during COVID, so the times were a little bit dangerous, but with the proper PPE (personal protective equipment) and protection, he thought it was important to go out and get the word out,” said Adrian Sarmiento, Diego’s brother. “He felt a calling to get people, especially Latino voters, to come and mobilize and vote for the right causes. It was cool to see him step up when the world needed him.”

While working for the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ office, Diego also helped institute a pilot program for homelessness prevention that gives supplemental income of $400 a month to 100 families who are single-parent households or senior citizens on the brink of eviction, Diego said.

(Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin)
Sarmiento is pictured in front of a mural. (Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin)

Randall Akee, an associate professor of American Indian studies and public policy, said while teaching him, he noticed Diego’s interest in labor issues like minimum wage, monopsony, unions and adverse impacts of inequality and market failures on immigrants and communities of color.

Diego’s interests made him a great student to teach, Akee added.

“The Truman Fellowship has really highlighted and emphasized the idea of creating networks of passionate people in regard to improving society, and he has been demonstrating that throughout his life and his time in high school, but also now at UCLA,” Akee said.

Diego said he plans to spend a summer in Washington, D.C., at the Summer Institute, where Truman Scholars are connected to employers and organizations in the area after graduation. He added that he plans to pursue a master of public policy while also attending law school before returning to work in Santa Ana.

“Not many people in my community have a law degree or a master’s in public policy, and we have to look outside our community for that expertise, so I’m hoping to come back and fill that gap in Santa Ana,” Sarmiento said. “My work in Santa Ana will hopefully grow and progress to make a change at a broader, maybe state level, or national level.”

In addition to winning the Truman Scholarship, Diego was one of 10 California students to win the Donald A. Strauss Scholarship, which provides $15,000 for a public service project and assistance with implementation, he said in an emailed statement. He added that he hopes to use this funding to increase Latino youth voter turnout in Santa Ana.

Diego said he is also passionate about ensuring politicians respond to their constituents and not their campaign funders, adding that he thinks it is important to strive for ambitious economic goals.

“Guaranteeing free higher education as a right, guaranteeing more paid time off, living wages, where people who work full time aren’t living in poverty and struggling to pay for basic things like food and housing,” he said. “I’m not kind of naive. They might not happen in my lifetime. But I think it’s a worthy goal to strive for and hopefully get a little closer.”

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