Family’s Story Motivates Pulitzer Center Fellow Aman Madan '19

UPDATE (April 23, 2018): Aman Madan '19 has been selected as one of only 59 scholars chosen nationwide to receive the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship award.

"I’m honoured, grateful and deeply humbled," Madan said. "For those who know me best, you know that this semester has not been easy for me–each person that I’ve relied on, however, has been there not because they needed to but because they genuinely cared for me. Words are not enough to express my gratitude."

Truman Scholars, the foundation said, "have the passion, intellect, and leadership potential that in time should enable them to improve the ways that public entities–be they government agencies, nonprofit organizations, public and private educational institutions, or advocacy organizations–serve the public good."

“Aman brings a mature and thoughtful approach to his studies and the work he’s done beyond campus, whether reporting on Syrian refugees for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, or drafting grant proposals for the American University in Beirut" said Peter Ahrensdorf, James Sprunt Professor of Political Science and Davidson’s Truman Faculty Representative. "A demonstrated leader and change-maker, the Truman Scholarship will help Aman develop and broaden his leadership skills."

Madan credited his professors for unfailing mentorship and support.

"I want to thank Dr. Rebecca Joubin, who was instrumental in shaping my Davidson career; Dr. Silvana Toska, who similarly has been a mentor of mine at Davidson; Dr. Chris Alexander, who has been there for me as a professor, mentor and friend; and of course, Dr. Peter Ahrensdorf, who guided me through the Truman process," he said.

The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation was created by Congress in 1975 to be the nation’s living memorial to President Harry S. Truman. The Foundation has a mission to select and support the next generation of public service leaders. The Truman award has become one of the most prestigious national scholarships in the United States.

Annually, candidates for the Truman Scholarship go through a rigorous, multi-stage selection process. In 2018, there were 756 candidates for the award nominated by 311 colleges and universities, a record number of institutions. The 194 finalists for the award were interviewed in March and early April at one of 16 regional selection panels. Fifty-nine new Truman Scholars were selected in 2018. They will receive their awards in a ceremony at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum on Sunday, May 27, 2018.

Recipients of the Truman Scholarship receive a $30,000 scholarship toward graduate school and the opportunity to participate in professional development programming to help prepare them for careers in public service leadership.

Vidya and Puran Chand Madan locked their home in Lahore, India, and boarded the military truck that had come to take them away. It would be temporary, someone said, just while new political borders were drawn in the region.

“What do I have to do with a border? Lahore is my home,” Vidya thought.

It was not temporary. Lahore was no longer part of India, nor a friendly place for Hindus like the Madans.

The 1947 Indian Partition carved Muslim Pakistan out of the northern Punjab region, splitting apart families, friends and neighbors who only weeks before had celebrated one another’s religious holidays together. Vidya and Puran were just two of some 14 million souls who would be displaced by the Partition amid waves of ensuing violence. They never returned to Lahore.

“They told these things without ever uttering the word ‘refugee,’” said their grandson Aman Madan '19.

Whether or not they thought of themselves as refugees, Vidya and Puran’s story of life upended carries on today. It is the story at the heart of Madan’s budding journalistic career.

A Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting fellowship took him last summer to Amman, Jordan, where he interviewed and wrote about Syrian refugees with the help of a fixer on the ground, Etaf Roudan, an accomplished journalist herself. He wrote about Jordanian elections and the value of activist journalism, pitching stories and publishing them in regional and global publications.

“Now that the Pulitzer Center has shown me what I can do with support, I’ve decided to keep writing on my own and keep pitching to major publications,” Madan said. “Writing for me is a way to work out my passions and thoughts and ideas. And it’s a way to engage with think-tankers, policymakers, academics and diplomats.”

It is also a way to honor his own family’s story, from refugees to immigrants to first-generation American college student.

The Rest of the Story

The Partition that made refugees of Madan’s grandparents eventually landed the young couple in New Delhi, along with thousands upon thousands like them, starting over from homelessness.

In time, their son Gurdeep married Seema. Her family was well-to-do, theirs was not. The arranged marriage foundered early, a casualty of the disparity. Heartbroken, Gurdeep immigrated to the United States with $40, cleaned toilets, worked his way up in a variety of jobs and finally started his own second-hand jewelry business. Then, he returned to New Delhi to reclaim his love for Seema, and hers for him. They moved to Hixson, Tennessee, a suburb of Chattanooga, where he set up shop in the local flea market. Their son, Aman, was born in 1997.

Even in his hometown, Madan was confronted with the question “Where are you from?”

“I always wanted to answer ‘Tennessee,’” Madan said. “This is my country. I’m from here.”

On the way to and from school, he and his dad would listen to NPR, discussing in depth all kinds of global current events long after the car radio clicked off.

Davidson stood out as Madan’s top college choice, for offering just that sort of close and rigorous conversation with top professors across many disciplines. The Davidson Trust -- the college’s commitment to meet 100 percent of calculated financial need of accepted students through a combination of grants and campus employment -- made it happen for the immigrant shopkeeper’s son.

As a freshman, Madan, a Terry Scholar, co-founded the student group Davidson Refugee Support and helped lead its higher education initiative to bring Syrian students to Davidson. The parallels of the stories he heard to his own family’s story struck him deeply, including that of Hani Zaitoun ’20.

“That collective memory and that pain still fuels me to do what I do,” Madan said. “It was personal.”

Always Learning

Madan also found faculty champions early in his Davidson career -- or they found him.

Professors in history, political science and Arab studies helped him match what he was learning with how he wanted to live, connecting him to Dean Rusk International Studies Program funding for study abroad and guiding his application for the Pulitzer fellowship.

Madan spent time with Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa’s during a campus visit, and later published a review of that author’s “In Praise of Hatred” in al-Jadid.

“As a sophomore, he was already poised to conduct original research in Arabic for the Pulitzer Center,” said Associate Professor of Arabic Rebecca Joubin. “His grasp of history, culture and politics was unique.”

During two semesters at the American University in Beirut, theory and practice merged.

“I would go to a class in Arabic, history or political science, and an hour later I was taking the same concepts and applying them in the workplace,” Madan said.

In his job at the AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, he pulled an all-nighter to write a speech for his director’s Istanbul trip and drafted a successful grant proposal about tribal identity in eastern Syria and northern Iraq. During his fall semester in Beirut, the Pulitzer Center flew him to Washington, D.C., for a conference.

By the time he returned to the Davidson campus in early 2018, Madan had already spent nearly half his college career abroad.

“Now, I’m very much a third-culture kid,” he said. "Where is home? Hixson, Tennessee? India? Davidson? I’m also very comfortable in the Middle East."

Read Madan's stories, written for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting:

John Syme