At 25, Bennett Lunn already knows the changes he’d like to see in America’s education system won’t come fast.
“I think generally the arc of change in the United States has been one of moderate progress, then retrenchment, and then moderate progress, and then retrenchment, and I don’t see that changing,” he says. “I think part of making lasting change is figuring out how to build institutions to handle that process.”
That kind of figuring motivates Lunn, an Aiken native who earned his BARSC in educational policy in 2020. The South Carolina Honors College alumnus was awarded two prestigious scholarships to help him on his way to making public education more equitable. In 2019 he became the University of South Carolina’s 10th Truman Scholar, and in October he became USC’s first Samvid Scholar.
As a Truman Scholar, he worked for the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Miguel Cardona. As a Samvid Scholar, he’s working for his Juris Doctor at Columbia University School of Law. This fall he’ll start his second year, working with CU’s Center for Public Research and Leadership, which focuses on making education accessible to all students in the United States, particularly those of color and from lower incomes. The CPRL will match him with a specific school district, state agency or education-based nonprofit, where he will work full time — 40-48 hours a week.
While that program is “the most time-intensive thing relative to other clinical offerings at Columbia,” Lunn’s experiences working for a federal agency helping with pandemic recovery efforts have prepared him for future challenges. “Working on national-level education policy is not something I expected to be doing at 23 or 24 — and that’s because of the Truman scholarship,” he says.
The Samvid Scholarship awards $100,000 for graduate study for future leaders who want to make positive change in society. The Truman Scholarship awards $30,000 for graduate students interested in public service and provided supplemental leadership support during his time at the U.S. Department of Education.
Lunn became interested in educational policy in high school after leadership changes led to many teachers leaving. An administrator’s new grading rule was good in theory but impractical to implement, and Lunn learned how one local policy change could have broad impact.
“The tone of the school changed as teacher workload increased, and their stress spilled into the classroom,” he says. “This prompted me to read more about the policy supports necessary for quality teaching, which ultimately led to my interest in school resource equity and school funding as a prerequisite for supporting both teachers and students.”
At the same time, Lunn’s father became mysteriously sick, making a busy senior year even more difficult. He noticed how supportive his teachers were, and he appreciated it: “It was a tough time for my family, and my teachers were really, really good about providing a community for me.”
Wanting to stay close to home because of his father’s health, Lunn was happy to be accepted into the SCHC. Declaring as an international business major, he swiftly changed to BARSC. A conversation after Convocation with advisor Anna Redwine led to an introduction to then-assistant dean Ed Munn Sanchez, who taught philosophy of education.
“That was all she wrote,” Lunn says. “I had a really good experience in that course and started to piece together how I wanted to approach being a public servant. The BARSC allowed me to maximize my options while also having a rigorous program.”
Conversations with other professors who suggested helpful courses laid the groundwork for law school, he knows now. “A lot of it is trying to build relationships and getting to know people. I didn’t know how to do that at first, but BARSC gave me some experience with that.”
This summer Lunn will be working with the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College in New York, supporting litigation related to providing meaningful education opportunity. He also will be working with the ACLU of South Carolina on a broader array of civil rights litigation. He envisions a career in civil rights litigation, probably in the Southeast, focused on education access issues.
“Ideally that would look like working on school funding litigation to try to ensure that states are meeting constitutional obligations to provide adequate and equitable educational opportunity to all students,” he says.
Lunn can look back at his younger self and recognize his thinking about policy changes has evolved.
“I’ve shifted from thinking about how government and institutions can be changed to
how opinion can be changed to inform those institutions,” he said. “A lot of it comes
down to trying to convince average voters that your side is right. That’s hard to
do and a slow-moving process.”
By comparison, Bennett Lunn is moving fast: from Aiken to Columbia to Washington, D.C., to New York City within six years. “If I’m not careful, I’ll end up in Canada,” he quips.
Then, more seriously, he adds: “It’s been a change, going from real nervous about getting in the Honors College and being in Columbia to looking at where I’ll be after law school. The opportunities and scholarships I’ve had weren’t things I expected, and I’m grateful to the SCHC and my communities for helping me get here.”