Among his many goals for public service, Owen Mortner ’23 hopes first to broaden its definition.
“It shouldn’t be an exercise in elevating individuals, but in building power within communities,” says the honors political science major, who has just been named a Truman Scholar — the premier graduate scholarship for aspiring public service leaders.
“The intersecting crises of our political moment really call for that kind of movement-based, grassroots model of change.”
Mortner, who transferred to Swarthmore this year, is one of 57 students from across the U.S. this year to earn the scholarship. They will receive funding for graduate studies, leadership training, career counseling, and opportunities for federal internships and fellowships.
The honor holds special meaning for Mortner, who grew up in a single-parent household with an incarcerated father. In his application for the scholarship, he expressed how those experiences “informed [his] commitment to public service as a mechanism for addressing structural inequality.”
Mortner has long sought to effect positive change in his community. He joined his first political campaign in high school, when his science teacher’s partner ran for state senate in a heavily gerrymandered district.
“To me, it represented an opportunity to build meaningful change for my friends and neighbors,” says Mortner, of Cambridge, Mass.
Mortner went on to work for more than ten political campaigns at the local, state, and federal levels. He recruited campaign fellows, led volunteer training, and organized fundraising events for the re-election campaign of U.S. Senator Ed Markey, and he remotely managed a successful Boston-area city council campaign this fall.
At Swarthmore, Mortner is active with the College Democrats, the Mock Trial Team, and the LGBTQ+ Advisory Board. He has also volunteered with a nongovernmental organization in Peru to disrupt cyclical poverty through ESL education, and tutored incarcerated individuals through the Petey Greene Program.
Mortner aspires to be a public interest lawyer, tackling systemic poverty, educational inequality, and the school-to-prison pipeline. He plans to pursue a joint MPA/JD degree.
When Mortner received word of the Truman Scholarship, through a congratulatory email from Swarthmore President Valerie Smith, he felt “a deep sense of gratitude.”
“As a first-year transfer student, I’ve felt incredibly welcomed and supported by the entire College community,” he says. “There are so many opportunities that I now have access to and ways that my life has changed positively.”