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Truman Scholarship Finalist Goes From Chess Champ to People’s Champ

Truman finalist and UC student Jonathan Hilton puts his pro chess career on hold to pursue change in U.S. immigration and asylum law.

Date: 3/7/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Lisa Ventre

Jonathan Hilton is not your ordinary chess prodigy, if there is such a thing.

He surrendered his childhood dream of a potentially lucrative career on the international chess circuit and gambled on the opportunities he saw at the University of Cincinnati.

In chess parlance, you might call it “Hilton’s Gambit” – perhaps even “Hilton’s Folly.”

But now, as a Harry S. Truman Scholarship finalist and in the junior year of his self-designed interdisciplinary degree in immigration studies, it’s easy to see that Hilton’s stratagem paid off.
Jonathan Hilton has gone from chess prodigy to super scholar at the University of Cincinnati. He recently was named a finalist for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship.

By working through UC's new Office of Nationally Competitive Awards, Hilton will be among a dozen regional Truman finalists interviewed by a panel of judges March 21 on UC’s uptown campus. Of those, three to five will be chosen as scholarship winners.

The Truman Scholarship was founded in memory of the 33rd president, who was known for his commitment to public service. The prestigious award provides up to $30,000 in funding to students pursuing graduate degrees in public service fields in addition to assistance with career counseling, internship placement, graduate school admission and professional development. Scholars also can participate in the Truman Scholar Leadership Week, the Summer Institute and the Truman-Albright Fellows Program.

Hilton grew up in Fairfield, Ohio, where he was home schooled by his parents, Michael and Paula, and named a National Merit Scholar. He began playing competitive chess when he was 8 years old, and by the time he was in his teens, he had already been to competitions around the world. He loved chess, and a career playing the game seemed like a natural and viable choice.

But things began to change for Hilton when he was accepted into UC’s University Honors Program. Getting an education at one of the top public research universities in the nation was a move he found hard to resist.

“That opportunity was something I wasn’t going to pass up just because I could spend that time getting to the next level in chess,” Hilton said.

Hilton had other concerns about the life of a chess champion, too. He began to notice a downward trend in his competition results and other complications with everyday life. As it turns out, his problems were health related. He was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disorder that affects the neuromuscular system. It limits Hilton’s motor functions and makes him tire easily.

Letting go of chess wouldn’t be easy. It had taught him so much beyond the black-and-white world of kings, knights and pawns. He learned how to think for himself, to be creative and, most importantly, to connect with people. Over the years he had faced many different challengers and found that chess players are a lot alike. He took this discovery to a more philosophical level, believing that around the world, people are fundamentally the same.

This revelation helped him realize that by moving forward at UC, he wouldn’t be leaving chess behind. He could take what he’d learned from the game and use it as a tool to forge new relationships. Like any chess master, Hilton began thinking several moves ahead and wasted no time making good on his academic intentions.

Before ever attending a class at UC, Hilton applied for and was accepted into the University Honors and Romance Languages and Literatures study abroad program in Nicaragua – a first for an incoming first-year student. He spent 16 days in Granada, studying the language and culture and doing service work.

Debbie Brawn is the administrative director of the honors program and wrote a recommendation letter for Hilton’s Truman application. Not long after meeting Hilton, she felt he could be that rare kind of student with visionary focus on academics and leadership.

“His participation in our Nicaragua program was a seminal experience and was the catalyst for his vision,” Brawn says. “He is exactly what the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation is looking for in its Truman Scholars – highly talented and accomplished students like Jonathan who want to make a difference through public service.”

What Hilton learned through study abroad set off a chain reaction of moves that would redefine not only his academic path, but his goals in life, as well. Once stateside and attending classes at UC, he began designing his immigration studies degree.

Hilton has taken classes in a broad range of academic departments – political science, geography and romance languages to name a few – and gone on to study in Chile, Belgium, France, Mexico and Spain. He also volunteers at the Church of Our Savior, an Episcopal church about a mile off campus, helping members of the local Guatemalan community with literacy and immigration law issues. But it’s the study abroad experience that he says was transformative.

“Participating in the study abroad program opened my eyes to a whole new realm of possibilities for me in college,” Hilton says. “It was expanding my own world view past just my own life. Once I started interacting with people from around the world, I started seeing just how big the world is and yet how we are all alike at some fundamental level. It made me want to correct injustices or wrongs that are not just local but that have global impact.”

That newfound global perspective influenced Hilton’s career choice. He wants to be an immigration lawyer and serve as an agent for change in immigration and asylum law. He particularly hopes to adjust the United States’ stance on granting asylum for victims of domestic violence. Current policy is based on the 1980 Refugee Act and doesn’t consider domestic violence a justifiable reason for asylum.
Jonathan Hilton would like to one day change U.S. immigration and asylum law.

The issue hits close to home for Hilton. He recently worked on a case at Our Savior for a Guatemalan immigrant named Maria who had been taken to the U.S. and abandoned by her abusive husband. The man told her that if she tried to return home, he would kill her. Despite Hilton’s efforts to help her gain asylum, Maria was sent home. Fortunately, Hilton and Our Saviour arranged for her to be sent to an area in Guatemala where she’d be safe.

It’s cases like this that Hilton wants to change. In his Truman application, he suggested a way the U.S. could prioritize cases, allowing victims of domestic violence to be considered an acceptable social group for asylum. Through that effort he sees his chance to change the world.

“We can prioritize cases, such as domestic violence victims, in order to show to the rest of the world what kinds of things we consider to be priorities, what kinds of things are actually problems and where we want to make a difference,” Hilton says. “I’m trying to change the entire beat of the world in that sense and really change the discussion about what we consider to be problems at the international level.”

Becoming a Truman Scholar will go a long way toward helping Hilton accomplish his goals, in part through the connections he’ll make with other scholars. Being named a finalist already puts him in an elite class of students. The Truman Foundation received 587 applications from 272 colleges and universities. Applications were reviewed, and the Finalist Selection Committee chose 191 candidates as finalists. Not many more than 50 of those finalists will be named this year’s Truman Scholars.

Hilton began working on his Truman application in August, and after many revisions and several talks with UC professors, he completed it in February. He says he’s excited to be nominated and thankful for all the support he’s received from UC faculty and staff. And the feeling is mutual. History Professor Stephen Porter, Hilton’s advisor and director of the International Human Rights Certificate, acknowledges the difficulties Hilton overcame to become a finalist and says he’s worthy of the distinction.

“I can't think of a more rigorous application process for an undergraduate award than that for the Truman Scholarship,” Porter says. “Even to make it to the finalists round places Jonathan among the crème de la crème of college undergraduates in the U.S. This recognition suggests that the college of Arts & Sciences offers a top-flight set of resources for UC students willing to take advantage of them.”

Hilton credits not only the faculty and staff for helping get him where he is in the competition, but his fellow students as well. He said the passion of Arts & Sciences students goes beyond the classroom and into the real world, and his Truman nomination is reflective of what can be accomplished through a UC education.

“UC students have impressed me because of how passionate they are about applying what they learn in the classroom to making the world a better place,” Hilton says. “I feel that’s how education should be. You should excel in the classroom in order to excel in making the world better and working for reform.”

Regardless of whether he’s named a Truman Scholar, Hilton says he’s honored to represent the entire UC community on such an important stage.

“When I get out there and interview for that Truman, I’m not just talking about me and what some of my goals are, I’m speaking for all the UC students in A&S who care about making those kinds of changes and I want to represent them well in this competition.”

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