Montana State University

MSU’s Thuringer wins trifecta of major scholarship awards

May 11, 2015 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Cara Thuringer, a photography and liberal studies double major from Sioux Falls, S.D., has won a Boren Scholarship to fund a year-long research project in Ghana. It is the third major scholarship award in a year for Thuringer, who is also a Truman and Udall scholarship winner. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Last summer Cara Thuringer, a junior at Montana State University from Sioux Falls, S.D., sat down with mentor Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the MSU Honors College, and talked about her future. The liberal studies (environmental studies concentration) and photography double-major told Lee that she wanted to do a capstone project in Africa before she went on to graduate school. At the time, Thuringer had just won a coveted Udall Scholarship in the environmental category, and Lee encouraged her to apply for a couple more of the country’s top academic scholarships.

“At that time it was a crazy dream (to apply for them),” said Thuringer, who recently learned that she has also won a coveted Boren Scholarship that will fund a year of study in Ghana next year.

With the Boren, Thuringer has won three major scholarships within a year. Just the week before she learned about the Boren, Thuringer received a Truman Scholarship, a highly competitive and prestigious scholarship given to college juniors with demonstrated leadership potential and commitment to public service.

“To have all three (of the awards) come together is a dream come true,” Thuringer said.

 “To be recognized by three national foundations as an exceptional student and leader is a testament to Cara’s dedication to a career in public service focused on protecting the environment,” Lee said. “We are very proud of her and will follow her career trajectory with great interest”. 

Thuringer said the Boren will enable her to leave in August for the University of Ghana where she will spend her senior year completing her research project on the effect of water scarcity on the emergence of violent conflict.

Thuringer acknowledged that Ghana is a long way from the South Dakota lake where she spent her childhood “running around barefoot and swimming” and learning to love the environment. She decided to enroll at MSU, where she could double-major in her dual passions of the environment (in MSU’s College of Letters and Science) and photography (in MSU’s College of Arts and Architecture), as well as the university’s location in a “great place to ski, hike, run and do the things I love to do.”

One of the first things Thuringer did when she arrived at MSU was to volunteer for the MSU Network of Environmentally Conscious Organizations, which led to her becoming a senator with the Associated Students of MSU. She was the student member on the University Facilities Planning Board for a year. Currently, she works at the MSU Student Health Center as well as with the Montana Conservation Voters, where she worked as a student intern during the most recent legislature. She also has worked with the Western Environmental Law Center and in her spare time takes photographs of the impact of coal trains on area bridges.

“Sometimes, photographs are how I can best comment on the human relationship with the environment,” she said.  “Photography also helps slow me down and think more about our relationship with the environment.”

Thuringer was also the recipient of an Izaak Walton League of American National Scholarship that facilitated a study abroad semester in her junior in Vietnam, Morocco and Bolivia where she researched how different cultures interact with the environment and are responding to climate change. She has also studied the environmental impacts of mining practices in South Africa, as part of an Honors “Great Expeditions” course. 

Thuringer said she picked Ghana for her senior research project because the projected impacts of climate change on the country, specifically water resources.

“The Boren is changing everything for me,” she said.

Thuringer said she will graduate next year before then spend the summer in Washington, D.C. as part of the Truman Scholarship. Thuringer plans to defer her graduate study in a joint program on environment sustainability development at Harvard and Brandeis Universities for a few years while she continues to work to ameliorate “climate change in a socially, politically and economically thoughtful way. I hope I can do it in Montana. It would be sad to leave Montana.” She plans to eventually work for a non-governmental organization about climate change.

“I used to say that climate change was the most important issue facing my generation, but I now believe that it is the most critical issue. Period.”

Alex Paterson, an MSU junior from Salt Lake City, also received a Truman Scholarship this spring.  The two were among the 58 winners of the scholarship, which provides $30,000 toward graduate school and the opportunity to participate in professional development programming to help prepare them for careers in public service leadership. Thuringer won a Truman from her home state of South Dakota and Paterson won for Montana, making it the first time in MSU’s history that it has had two Truman winners.

In her spare time, Thuringer runs, bicycles, knits, studies other languages and reads. Among her favorite books are Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” as well as Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” and Kundera’s “Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

“I don’t have a television,” she says with a shrug.

Thuringer said she believes that her trifecta of major scholarships may not have happened had she not enrolled at MSU.

“MSU is so very down to earth. If you are interested in something, MSU has programs that let you go find out about it,” she said.

“MSU is large enough that there are lots of opportunities. But it is not too large, so there is lots of flexibility to study what you are interested in. I don’t know if (the three major awards) could have come together anyplace else.”


Ilse-Mari Lee (406) 994-4110,

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