Courtesy of fellowship.osu.edu
When President E. Gordon Gee walked into class one morning holding a cloud of scarlet and gray balloons, followed by Steven Gabbe, CEO of the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State, the usual lecture slideshow paused.
Alex Chaitoff, a third-year in political science and microbiology, was recently recognized as a Harry S. Truman Scholar, which was the reason for celebration that morning. As a Truman Scholar, Chaitoff won a $30,000 scholarship to put toward graduate school, as well as a policy-intensive fellowship with a government agency. Chaitoff’s experience co-founding a humanitarian nonprofit organization and conducting undergraduate research helped him in being selected as the only Truman Scholar from Ohio this year.
“When (Gee and Gabbe) came into the class, my first thought was, ‘This is torture. There’s somebody else in this class that won some sort of major award,'” Chaitoff said. “I didn’t think my name had come out yet. I was really surprised. I didn’t comb my hair or put in contacts that day, so I looked really raggedy, but I was ecstatic.”
Chaitoff and David Agranovich, a third-year in political science and international studies, were the only two Truman finalists chosen from OSU, but Chaitoff was the only winner. Chaitoff and Agranovich graduated from Solon High School in 2009, and were roommates during their freshman year. Being familiar with Agranovich’s interests and body of work, Chaitoff said he believed that they were each qualified for the fellowship.
“I think Ohio State had the two best candidates this year,” Chaitoff said.
During the interview process, Chaitoff was able to meet other finalists from the region who boasted equally impressive resumes.
“You spend nine hours sitting in a room with the other finalists, and they tell you, ‘Don’t read books, don’t get on your computer. This is for you guys to connect,'” Chaitoff said. “So all you do is listen to how these other people are really awesome.”
Chaitoff said he felt prepared to handle the combative-style interview, during which interviewers twisted candidate experiences so that finalists were required to defend and discuss how their experiences relate to current issues.
Chaitoff said he prepared for the interview portion by answering practice questions and keeping up with current affairs.
“I never felt nervous because the fellowship office here was unbelievable,” Chaitoff said. “They set up a ton of mock interviews with really impressive people, so by the time I went to the real interview, I felt I had been asked every question that they would ever ask.”
Interviewers did ask Chaitoff about the nonprofit organization he co-founded, the Pure Water Access Project (PWAP). Chaitoff started the nonprofit with three other friends and roommates during his freshman year, and the nonprofit was officially incorporated in summer 2010. Their collective vision was to increase access to clean water in developing countries, and in turn, reduce the diseases spread by drinking unsanitary water.
“The end goal is to cut down on how many instances of these diseases there are by delivering water filters,” Chaitoff said. “But we try to do it not just by direct intervention, but also by research.”
As director of research for PWAP, Chaitoff created the original survey that was used to help determine what barriers preventing people in developing countries from gaining access to clean water.
This past Spring Break, the other three directors for PWAP traveled to Nicaragua to begin a year-long study there. Chaitoff was unable to accompany them since the Truman interview was during that time, but his commitment to furthering the project’s goals is apparent.
“What makes (Chaitoff) easy to work with is his dedication to the organization as a whole,” said Shuvro Roy, a third-year in biology and director of implementation for PWAP. “He is willing to check his ego at the door in order to make sure things run smoothly, and is constantly thinking about ways to improve our organization.”
As its next improvement, PWAP is focusing on developing educational outreach. The idea is for the organization to expand by creating clubs across various college campuses, starting at OSU, to harness a new outlet for funding opportunities. Individual donations fund PWAP, but even with limited funding, PWAP has been able to successfully help about 1,200 people gain access to clean water through the use of water filters.
Adam Tabbaa, a fourth-year in microbiology and director of public relations for PWAP, agreed Chaitoff is an essential asset to the operation of the project.
“He is an incredibly compassionate person, and that combined with his analytical way of thinking is why he is able to contribute to PWAP like he does,” Tabbaa said.