Berklee Student Sam Zilli Named Truman Scholar

By 
Colette Greenstein
April 21, 2020
Press release
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Zilli is the college's first applicant and recipient.

Sam Zilli
Image by Steve Pomeroy

Sam Zilli, a Berklee College of Music student, was named a 2020 Truman Scholar by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, president of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. Zilli is one of 62 recipients from 55 colleges and universities across the country to receive this prestigious honor.

Named after Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, the Truman Scholarship is the premier graduate fellowship awarded to individuals pursuing careers in public service. Truman Scholars receive up to $30,000 for graduate study, along with priority admission and supplemental financial aid. The scholarship package also provides leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government.

A professional music major with concentrations in artistry and creative music industry studies, as well as music production and engineering, Zilli is an award-winning spoken word poet. In addition, they are also a semifinalist in the International Songwriting Competition, and a recipient of Berklee’s Walter W. Harp Liberal Arts Music and Society Scholarship. For four years, Zilli served in the U.S. Navy as a helicopter mechanic while working to improve reporting, response, and support for survivors of sexual violence in the military.

“I am honored to be named a Truman Scholar and thankful to represent the incredible education I have received at Berklee,” says Zilli. “Being named a Truman Scholar validates my belief that music is much larger than it appears. If we allow it to challenge us as people, we bring better versions of ourselves into the world. It has been an absolute gift to go through this process, and I am infinitely thankful for the opportunity and support.”

The Michigan native was nominated by Dustin Gee, Berklee’s director of employer engagement and career programs, in part because of "their bravery and perseverance in speaking out on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says Gee. As a transgender student studying voice while also hormonally transitioning, Zilli collaborated with the college to improve support for future trans* students and increase awareness of how hormones change professionally trained voices.

Zilli learned about the Truman Scholarship in the fall of 2019 through their Cognitive Psychology professor, Pooja K. Agarwal, assistant professor of psychology in the Liberal Arts Department. She told them that the application process would be challenging from the beginning. “I had no idea that beyond the immense workload, it would require me to put everything I have learned as a student, activist, and musician to the test,” states Zilli.

A Truman Scholar herself, Agarwal had been searching for a student to nominate for the Truman Scholarship during her four years of teaching at Berklee. “It’s so much more than a scholarship,” says Agarwal. “Being a Truman Scholar is about building a community of peers, of remarkable people, who share a dedication to making our world a better place.”

Upon receiving their Bachelor of Music degree next year, Zilli plans to pursue a J.D. in civil rights law and dedicate their career to improving government support for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, with a focus on immigrant justice.

About the Truman Foundation

The Truman Foundation was created by Congress in 1975 as the living memorial to President Truman and the Presidential Memorial to Public Service. The foundation’s mission is premised on the belief that a better future relies on attracting to public service the commitment and sound judgment of bright, outstanding Americans. It was this belief that led President Truman, when approached by a bipartisan group of admirers near the end of his life, to encourage Congress to create a living memorial devoted to this purpose rather than a traditional brick-and-mortar monument. For more than 40 years, the Truman Foundation has fulfilled that mission: inspiring and supporting Americans from diverse backgrounds and from across the United States to public service.

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