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Kayla Dunn

Truman Scholar finalist focuses on people behind issues

Monday, April 6, 2020

When Oklahoma State University junior Kaya Dunn’s 2019 summer plans fell through at the last minute, she sought an opportunity to combine her dual degrees in multimedia journalism and Spanish.

"I called all the news stations on the border of the U.S. and Mexico and said, 'Hello, I’m Kayla. I know it’s late April and your internships have closed, but can I still apply?'"

Her initiative paid off and Dunn got an internship at Tucson's NBC affiliate station.

"I’d seen all the stories from the past year and a half about the migrant crisis and people in detention camps," Dunn said. "I wanted to actually see what that looked like, so I found a way to get as close to the issue as I could." 

The Stillwater High graduate interned at the news station in the mornings and in the afternoons she volunteered at Casa Alitas, a program that aids migrants seeking asylum.

"While I was there, my capacity ended up being an art teacher and doing art therapy with the kids," Dunn said. "A lot of my time was spent talking and painting with the families, and everyone brought up this issue with translation services."

Dunn explained that because migrants cannot apply for asylum in Spanish, language barriers between them and lawyers and judges can become a game of telephone with serious ramifications. 

"At their court dates in the U.S., asylees’ stories have to check out — they verify them," Dunn said. "So if a lawyer translated something wrong and then the next lawyer translates something wrong, migrants can get deported."

When Dunn returned home, she used her experiences in Arizona to draft a potential solution to the problem: the option to seek asylum in one’s native language. Her idea then became part of her application for the Truman Scholarship, a prestigious graduate fellowship awarded to college students seeking careers in public service. Dunn was selected as a national finalist in February and will find out this month if she has been named a Truman Scholar.

"I've grown so much just from applying," Dunn said. She added that working with Latasha Tasci and Jessica Sullins in OSU’s Office of Scholar Development and Undergraduate Research — specifically focusing on public diplomacy — has given her "another trajectory for my future."

"So even if I don't get the Truman, I'm confident that what I want to do is what I will do in some capacity," Dunn said. "It's what I'm passionate about. It's what I want to do with my life."

Tasci, who is the coordinator for undergraduate research, witnessed Dunn’s passion firsthand during the months-long Truman Scholarship application process.

"She seems to always be able to engage everyone in a group, regardless of the dynamics, which is critical to success in diplomacy," Tasci said. "Kayla is not one who can sit silently on the sidelines when there is something that needs to be done. I think she recognizes her abilities to help ease a situation, and does not hesitate to jump in." 

What Tasci observed about Dunn echoed what Dunn herself said is the main reason she chose to study journalism and now public diplomacy: the human aspect. 

"I think that one of the biggest struggles in journalism is putting a face on things and giving people a reason to genuinely empathize and care about an issue more than just its partisan affiliation," Dunn said. "It's very easy for people to say, 'I'm Republican, so I believe this.’ Or 'I'm a Democrat, so I believe this,' and not associate the issue with the people it's impacting."

She continued, "Public diplomacy is much more about being a bridge between two cultures. Public diplomacy would allow me to get to know people and convey their stories without having to stay impartial, as you do in journalism."

While Dunn’s future career could take her abroad, it’s her childhood connection to stateside college towns—as the daughter of OSU football’s offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn—that prompted her desire to work in a field that puts a face on public issues. 

"I lived in Southern Texas, in Seattle, on the Arizona border and in the backwoods of Mississippi," she said. "I got really used to change and diversity, and valued it a lot. I think that put me on this path of knowing that there's so much more to the world in terms of opinions and beliefs and backgrounds."

Her family moved 10 times while she was growing up, Dunn said, but they have been in Stillwater for nine years—and they expect to stick around for a while longer. 

"I love this college town and the way the community rallies behind OSU and paints their fence posts orange and goes to every game and the whole town shuts down," Dunn said. "I had planned to go to the University of Arizona, but then I toured OSU finally after graduating high school and was just like, 'I don't have to keep moving.' I decided to just invest more in Stillwater and the people I'd met. And I've loved it. I'm so glad I stayed."

MEDIA CONTACT: Elizabeth Gosney | College of Arts and Sciences | 405-744-7497 | egosney@okstate.edu

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