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Outstanding Northwestern Senior Awarded Ryan Prize

Northwestern graduating senior Sarah Carthen Watson to receive $5,000 award

  • Co-founder of Sustained Dialogue, president of SHAPE, For Members Only, the Black Student Alliance
  • Proud of making Northwestern a more welcoming campus for diverse students
  • Plans to attend law school with specialty in civil rights

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University graduating senior Sarah Carthen Watson has been awarded The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Prize for Community Service, which honors a student who exemplifies leadership and service through participation in University and community activities.

The cash prize of $5,000 was established to honor the Ryans’ generous commitment to volunteer service on behalf of Northwestern University and the Chicago community. It will be awarded June 18.

Carthen Watson also was awarded another Northwestern honor -- $250 for Community Service and Leadership in African American Studies -- on June 3.

Carthen Watson, 21, a native of Shoreview, Minnesota, majored in social policy with a minor in African American Studies. She sought out Northwestern for its academic excellence and she said it did not disappoint. Her campus leadership positions have ranged from vice coordinator of programming and president and coordinator of For Members Only, the Black Student Alliance, to program coordinator and president of Sexual Health Assault Peer Educators (SHAPE) and co-founder of Sustained Dialogue, a forum providing dialogue on race and identity.

She was inspired to improve race relations at Northwestern after racially charged incidents on campus her freshman year touched her personally. 

“I can put my head down or try to change it,” Carthen Watson said. “I’ve spent four years trying to change (the racial climate) and trying to make Northwestern a better place for those after me.”

She has been instrumental in creating outreach to the black college community by providing forums, such as the one she emceed with For Members Only last year for the hundreds grieving over the tragedies in Ferguson, Missouri, to bridge the gap between students of color and the administration, encouraging students to feel more comfortable and willing to share concerns.

“There has been a significant shift in the campus culture regarding issues of diversity,” Carthen Watson said.

Carthen Watson was active in a task force of students who worked with the director of Campus Inclusion and Community to assist with planning, implementation and evaluation of services and programs related to diversity. 

Sustained Dialogue was recognized by University President Morton Schapiro in 2013 for providing a tool for students to make time to understand the different perspectives of individuals they otherwise might not meet, and equipping students with communication skills necessary for increasingly diverse academic, social and work environments. Since then, Sustained Dialogue has led more than 200 students in discussions about diversity.

“As co-founders of this program, I witnessed Sarah’s passion for the campus shine through the development of this program,” said Jazzy Johnson, a 2013 Ryan Prize recipient. “She leveraged her influence in multitudinous communities on campus and positively challenged her peers to try something new that the campus had never seen before. She led the efforts for much of the outreach and development of the program and helped it to grow and expand across campus.”

Taking that outreach to the next level, Carthen Watson worked last summer at the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town, South Africa, and reaffirmed her goal to be a civil rights lawyer. She plans to attend law school in the fall.

“People need help navigating a legal system that is not designed to protect them and to help them change it,” she said.

The Ryans, both Northwestern University alumni, have been extraordinary donors to Northwestern for many years, providing leadership and support for academic programs, scholarships, the construction of Northwestern’s Nanotechnology Center, support for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and renovation of Northwestern’s football and basketball stadiums. They recently made the lead gift for a new multi-use athletics and recreational facility that will be located next to the shore of Lake Michigan at the north end of Northwestern’s Evanston campus. In honor of their gift, the facility will be named the Ryan Fieldhouse.

An earlier major gift from the Ryans created scholarships for low-income students to attend Northwestern without taking out any student loans, which has enabled Northwestern to attract high-achieving low-income students with exceptional leadership potential. That gift also supported graduate fellowships and facilities on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses, as well as providing athletic scholarships for undergraduate students.

-- Story by Elizabeth Owens-Schiele, a writer for Northwestern University media relations.

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