Truman scholar defers NYC job, grad school for year to do relief work in New Orleans

May 16, 2006 — Catherine S. Neale had planned on working for an executive search firm in New York City after graduation. Instead, she will spend a year in New Orleans doing relief work.

Neale, a 2005 Truman Scholarship winner, joined 25 other students in a two-week January term course studying the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. The group spent one week doing hands-on relief work in the beleaguered city.

“It was life-altering,” she said of working in New Orleans.

Her plan now is to concentrate on community rebuilding and sustainable development in the city, working with local agencies, not government or large non-profits.

“I want to work with the residents and get my hands dirty gutting a few houses and organizing neighborhoods,” she said.

So the search firm will wait (Neale still plans on taking the job). Later she will attend law school and eventually pursue a career in higher education.

A history and American studies major and the winner of a 2004 Walter R. Kenan research grant, Lawn-resident Neale examined slavery in the early history of the University.

“Slavery played an important role from the founding of the University to the Civil War,” she said. “Slavery at the University was an interesting contradiction. Ideals of enlightenment, equality, liberty and freedom were taught at the University coexisting with the Southern idea of slavery. It was an unstable foundation for the University.”

Students, she said, were barred from keeping slaves on Grounds, but the University provided one per 10 students to clean the rooms, do the laundry and cook.

Neale got support and encouragement from the University and her professors for her research, she said. She has presented her research in history classes and addressed a gathering of University athletics officials on her findings.

“This is something we need to talk about more,” she said.

“She wrote the most thorough and sensitive study we have of this volatile subject,” said Edward L. Ayers, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and Neale’s adviser on the project. Ayers described her as “visionary in her leadership, willing to try anything to build dedication to the ideals of liberal arts.””

Neale also served as the student member of the Board of Visitors.

“I learned a lot about higher education, administration, business and working with other people,” she said. “The board was welcoming and respectful and interested in hearing what a student had to say.”

“Catherine Neale is an exceptional student in a place that abounds in exceptional students,” said Nicole F. Hurd, assistant dean and director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence.

“She is a poised and ambitious intellectual who understands the value of public service and who is articulate in presenting her desires.”

Neale has also been president of the Arts & Sciences Council; the first student representative on the U.Va. College Foundation; and a member of the student South Lawn Task Force, the U.Va. Master Planning Council, the Buildings and Grounds Committee, the Student Buildings and Grounds Committee, the Student Council Legislative Affairs Committee, the University Guide Service and the Undergraduate Research Network.