Leya Elias ’21 named 2020 Truman Scholar

April 19, 2020, 10:49 p.m.

Leya Elias ’21 has been named a 2020 Truman Scholar, along with Nik Marda ’21.

The scholarship, awarded in honor of former U.S. President Harry Truman, recognizes American students who plan to pursue careers in public service after college. Recipients are selected based on their “academic success and leadership accomplishments, as well as their likelihood of becoming public service leaders,” and receive $30,000 towards a public-service oriented graduate program. This year, the Truman Scholarship Foundation selected 62 students from 55 institutions for the honor. 

Elias is a junior pursuing a major in psychology and minors in African and African American studies and political science. She served as the chair of the ASSU Undergraduate Senate during her sophomore year, is an Ujamaa Scholar and serves as co-president of the Stanford Ethiopian & Eritrean Students’ Association and co-president of the Stanford Black Pre-Law Society. She also served as a fellow at the Institute for Diversity in the Arts and was an undergraduate mentor for the Ernest Houston Johnson Scholars Program. Elias also works as a Cardinal Service Peer Advisor at the Haas Center for Public Service. 

Elias’ commitment to public service, however, started long before coming to Stanford. In high school, she interned for San Francisco Mayor London Breed, which she said was formative in developing her passions for policy and public service. 

“Watching Mayor Breed serve her constituents and make an impact in her district gave me faith in policy and the law to amplify underrepresented voices and create better socio-economic outcomes for my communities,” Elias said. 

After high school, Elias worked at the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, where she researched local human rights issues and drafted a policy proposal for increasing voter turnout. Elias’ proposal was recognized by California State Senator Mark Leno and Representative Nancy Pelosi. 

In the summer after her frosh year, Elias won a Stanford in Government (SIG) Fellowship to pursue an internship with the Ghana Center for Democratic Development. After finding that she was passionate about more local issues such as affordable housing as well, she worked with the Public Rights Project as a policy intern, collecting stories about wrongful evictions and conducting research related to predatory lending practices in states and cities. 

Elias’ primary focus, however, is criminal justice. 

“Coming from San Francisco, CA, I have seen the ways in which housing insecurity and educational inequities touch the criminal injustice system, so I care deeply about building equitable housing and educational systems  as part of criminal justice reform,” Elias said. 

At Stanford, Elias has worked as a research assistant in the Stanford Social Psychological Answers to Real World Questions (SPARQ) lab, where she supported criminal justice research projects done in partnership with local community members. 

“I care about creating a more equitable criminal justice system working towards its own obsoletion alongside those most impacted by today’s criminal injustice system,” Elias said. “Today’s criminal injustice system does little to reduce and provide healing from harm and violence, but instead, targets low-income communities of color.” 

Most recently, after taking the Stanford Law School course “Justice by Design: Evictions,” Elias used design thinking as a tool for reimagining how housing courts can use tailored social services to address housing inequity. Elias said that the class worked to “use design-thinking to ideate through potential interventions, increasing the accessibility of housing courts and lowering local eviction rates.”

After graduating from Stanford in 2021, Elias plans to attend law school and practice as a public defender. 

“I would like to organize alongside communities in creating alternatives to incarceration that help to both heal and prevent all types of harm,” she said.

Contact Sarina Deb at sdeb7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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