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University of Missouri

Mark Twain Fellowship Rewards Perseverance

New fellowship rewards students who fall short of Rhodes, Fulbright, others.

Zach Parolin

Zach Parolin visits the White House for a meeting with the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition in February 2014. He is a 2014 Mark Twain Fellow. Photo courtesy Zach Parolin.

Zach Parolin spent spring break his sophomore year sleeping on the streets of North Texas to raise awareness of the issue of youth homelessness and to honor his mother, who was displaced from her biological family during her teenage years.

Parolin’s parents overcame turbulent childhoods before earning college degrees, marrying and raising a family.

“The improbability of my parents’ success has never been lost on me,” says the Parkville, Mo., native. “I’ve always believed I owe it to them, and to our community as a whole, to ensure all of today’s youth, regardless of background or socioeconomic status, have the same opportunities to grow up and lead productive, meaningful lives.”

A 2012 graduate of the MU School of Journalism, Parolin has been awarded the inaugural 2014 Mark Twain Fellowship from Mizzou. The fellowship provides support for Mizzou students and recent alumni seeking to pursue graduate study abroad in any discipline. It covers full tuition and fees at a foreign university and a stipend for housing, living costs and round-trip transportation. It will allow Parolin to continue his efforts to raise awareness of and prevent youth homelessness.

“Each year, MU nominates top students for prestigious international fellowships, and each year at least some fantastic applicants fail to win,” says Associate Professor of Law Ben Trachtenberg, who led the selection committee for the fellowship. “This allows the university to recognize excellent performance by an outstanding student or recent alum.”

Trachtenberg and the MU Fellowships Office hope this award will encourage more top students to participate in the fellowships application process.

Parolin will conduct research at the University of Oxford Comparative Social Policy program. His research interests include the psychological effects of childhood poverty and international intervention models to prevent youth homelessness.

During a visit to a Columbia children’s emergency shelter in 2010, Parolin learned nearly 200 children and teenagers within the city’s public school district identified as “homeless,” meaning they were either on the streets, living in motels or doubling up with other families.

Parolin and a few of his friends decided to do something about it. They founded Project Sol, a campus organization working hand in hand with Rainbow House, a local emergency shelter for at-risk and runaway youth.

Project Sol mentored 198 homeless children and teenagers in two years. The program also developed an awareness campaign that educated students on the prevalence of youth homelessness and child poverty.

“This type of front line support generated my passion for social policy and my desire to influence the structural factors that inhibit so many of these youth from reaching their full potential,” he says.

His desire to contribute to the end of youth homelessness led him to pursue international fellowships, including the Mark Twain Fellowship.

“I’ll be able to work with some of the world’s most renowned social policy academics to develop a thesis, write a dissertation and conduct research throughout Europe,” Parolin says.

The timing could not be more appropriate, as the U.K. is undergoing a massive reform of its welfare programs that will affect nearly all low-income residents within the country. Parolin would like to get involved with the evaluation efforts and assess the controversial transformation.

In addition to Project Sol, Parolin coached a Special Olympics basketball team, served as a campus tour guide and led the Mizzou Alumni Association’s 75-member Alumni Association Student Board. He was inducted into Mizzou’s oldest secret honors society, QEBH, and was voted Homecoming King during his senior year.

After graduating from Mizzou, Parolin worked with the Australian Baseball League for one season before moving to Washington, D.C., to research comparative welfare systems at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy and manage strategic partnerships for the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

“Zach represents everything Mizzou hopes to see in its best students,” Trachtenberg says.

Selection criteria for the Mark Twain Fellowship include academic achievement, leadership, service and character. Students who apply for a Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Fulbright, Gates Cambridge, National Science Foundation, Churchill or a comparable nationally recognized fellowship program who are not awarded such fellowships may apply for the Mark Twain Fellowship. Thirty-three students were eligible this year.

Among the finalists for the 2014 Mark Twain was one alumna — Rebecca Dale, BA ’11, an international studies graduate. The three other finalists, who will all graduate in May, were nutrition and fitness major Ryan Branson, bioengineering major Claire Spradling, and political science and geography major Peter Thommesen.

The finalists’ desired areas of study for the included eating disorders among men in the U.S. and the U.K., the boundaries of lands and resources claimed by indigenous peoples in Africa, technology entrepreneurship in the field of medical device engineering, and the politics of South Korea.

“The finalists exemplified the breadth of excellence achieved at Mizzou,” Trachtenberg says. “To have fantastic applicants from such disparate areas of study was exciting and impressive.”