Two Stanford students named Truman Scholars

Nik Marda and Leya Elias are among the Americans selected for the award, which provides support for college juniors interested in public service careers.

Stanford juniors Leya Elias and Nik Marda are the recipients of the 2020 Truman Scholarship. They are among the 62 American college students to receive the award, which provides support for graduate school in preparation for careers in public service.

The award provides $30,000 for students to pursue graduate study in a field of their choice at any college or university. The selection process is highly competitive, drawing over 750 nominees from over 300 academic institutions. Stanford nominated Elias and Marda for the competition based on their outstanding academic achievements and commitment to improving public life.

The Truman Scholarship was established in 1975 to honor the legacy of President Harry S. Truman. Elias and Marda, who are both students in the School of Humanities and Sciences, will join a cohort of scholars that includes Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, former National Security Advisor and Stanford alum Susan Rice, ’86, U.S. Senator Chris Coons and Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.

Stanford students seeking additional information about the Truman Scholarship can visit the Haas Center for Public Service website.

Leya Elias (Image credit: Courtesy Leya Elias)

Leya Elias of San Francisco is pursuing a bachelor’s degrees in psychology with minors in political science and African and African-American studies. A dedicated public servant, Elias credits the award to the support she has received from her family, friends and mentors, among others.

“I am beyond honored to have received the Truman Scholarship and am forever indebted to my on- and off-campus communities for providing me with the support to be able to accept this award,” Elias said. “Receiving this scholarship only further strengthens my commitment to serving my communities with compassion, humility and dedication.”

Elias established an impressive public service career before she joined Stanford. As a high school student, she interned with San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission and volunteered for the Homeless Prenatal Program, a nationally recognized resource center for homeless and low-income families. Elias also interned for then-San Francisco Supervisor and current Mayor London Breed. The position, she said, was extremely formative in developing her interest and passion for public service.

At Stanford, Elias has worked with several organizations, including the Institute for Diversity in the Arts and the Center for Human Rights and International Justice. Her sophomore year she was elected to the Stanford Undergraduate Senate and was later selected as its chair. She currently serves as co-president of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Students’ Association and co-president of the Stanford Black Pre-Law Society. She also works as a Cardinal Service Peer Advisor at the Haas Center for Public Service, a role in which she advises other students on how to incorporate service into their professional and academic experiences.

Elias’ public service work extends far beyond the Farm. As a policy intern for the Public Rights Project, she collected stories of wrongful evictions and conducted research on predatory lending practices. And with support from a Stanford in Government Fellowship, she traveled to Accra, Ghana, for an internship with the Ghana Center for Democratic Development.

With support from the Truman Scholarship, Elias said she plans to attend law school. Her ultimate goal is to become a public defender.

“In the future, I hope to create a more equitable criminal justice system working toward its own obsolescence,” she said. “Specifically, I would like to become a public defender and organize alongside communities in creating alternatives to incarceration that help to both heal and prevent all types of harm.”

Nik Marda (Image credit: Courtesy Nik Marda)

Nik Marda is a junior studying political science with a minor in mathematics. He is simultaneously pursing a master’s in computer science with a specialization in artificial intelligence. With support from the Truman Scholarship, he hopes to blend his studies to pursue a career in public service.

“I’m grateful for the support in pursuing further graduate studies, and I’m excited to join a national community of public service leaders,” Marda said. “I look forward to building on my interdisciplinary education so that I can help craft technology policy in the public interest.”

Marda, who is from Rochester, Minnesota, began his public service career when he was just a teenager. In high school, he founded a MathCounts program to provide math enrichment to underserved middle school students. At Stanford, Marda is a co-founder of the Stanford Open Data Project, an editor of the Stanford Technology Law Review and a co-director of technology for Stanford in Government. He is also a crisis counselor for Crisis Text Line and a teaching assistant for a class on wellness in technology.

Outside of school, Marda has served as a product management fellow at the National Institutes of Health, where he built products for one of the most popular federal websites. He has also been a legislative intern for Sen. Amy Klobuchar and is currently interning for the Tech Talent Project. In the latter role, he is working with former government officials to improve technical leadership and capacity across the government.

Marda has published research with Michael Bernstein, associate professor of computer science, and worked as a research assistant for the Stanford Cyber Initiative. Last summer, Marda led a team to draft a proposal to increase the number of young civic technologists, for which he was acknowledged by the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service. For his honors thesis, he is using machine learning to study the impact of money on politics under advisor Adam Bonica, associate professor of political science.

Marda said the Truman Scholarship will support his continued education and professional training in multiple fields, which he hopes to apply in the public sector.

“I hope to use the scholarship for graduate studies in law and policy, focusing on how governments have harnessed and regulated emerging technologies in the past,” he said. “I intend on applying this knowledge to help improve the United States’ policies and regulations on artificial intelligence.”