LAWRENCE – Citing her “long-standing commitment to the mission of TRIO programs through her writing and journalism,” the Council on Opportunity in Education (COE) has honored author and University of Kansas graduate Sarah Smarsh with a 2021 National TRIO Achiever Award. Smarsh was recognized during COE’s 40th Annual Conference Award Banquet on Sept. 13 in Atlanta. While she was unable to be present, Smarsh will accept the 2021 award in-person at COE’s next annual conference in September 2022.
The TRIO Achiever award acknowledges TRIO alumni who have accomplished something extraordinary in their designated professions. Smarsh has not only accomplished in her field as a writer of journalism and books, but the topics she writes about — class, privilege, place, politics, gender — specifically relate to TRIO Programs.
The Federal TRIO programs provide support services for first-generation college students, with the goal of achieving academic success through postsecondary education and beyond. There are several TRIO programs housed at KU, such as TRIO Upward Bound and TRIO Talent Search, and the program Smarsh participated in was the KU TRIO McNair Scholars Program, which is designed to diversify academic and research fields by preparing students for graduate school through scholarly activities and research opportunities. Prior to becoming a McNair Scholar, Smarsh earned work-study money as an Upward Bound tutor providing academic help to middle school and high school students in Topeka and Kansas City.
“As a first-generation student, I lacked many things my middle-class peers took for granted: parental financial support, a computer, family guidance through the college experience. I was an engaged student who performed well in and outside the classroom yet was often food-insecure and psychologically overwhelmed,” Smarsh said. “When I passed a McNair Program flyer printed with the terms ‘first-generation’ and ‘low-income,’ I finally had words for the otherness I felt on campus even as a racially privileged student. The KU McNair Scholars Program did more than just provide needed resources and push me toward higher academic goals — it validated my struggles and showed me that I was not alone.”
Becoming a McNair Scholar her senior year at KU provided her a research stipend to help her begin research on her long-dreamed book project and also led her to apply for graduate school. As a first-generation college student, this was something she had not considered prior to the program. Smarsh went on to graduate school at Columbia University, where she earned an MFA in nonfiction writing. She was a tenured English professor at Washburn University in Topeka before leaving academia to focus on her writing.
In 2018, Smarsh published her first book, “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” which became an instant New York Times bestseller, a National Book Award finalist and earned rave reviews in various publications. Detailing her childhood growing up on a family farm outside of Wichita, “Heartland” explores themes common to Smarsh’s work, such as class, economic hardship and busting stereotypes of rural America.
In 2020, Smarsh published “She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs,” a cultural analysis of the celebrated singer, songwriter and philanthropist. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Non-Fiction.
“I am deeply humbled by the National TRIO Achiever Award,” Smarsh said. “This award is special to me not so much because it recognizes my professional accomplishments today, but because it comes from higher education advocates who know about the difficult journey it took to get there. I share this honor with all of them and hold their work in the highest esteem.”
Smarsh is the second TRIO alumnus from KU to receive the Achiever award. In 2018, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, creator and executive producer of the television show “S.W.A.T.,” received the honor.