News & Recipients

Newest USF Phi Beta Kappa Key Into Public Service Scholar Encourages Education Through Storytelling

Audra Nikolajski, a rising senior in the Judy Genshaft Honors College (JGHC), was recently selected as one of 20 students nationwide to the 2023 cohort of Key into Public Service Scholars by Phi Beta Kappa (PBK), the nation’s most prestigious honor society. The award recognizes students who demonstrate a commitment to public service and possess a strong academic record in the arts, humanities, mathematics, natural or social sciences. Audra focuses on reforming English education through the power of storytelling and is the fourth USF student named a PBK Key into Public Service Scholar in just the third year of the scholarship, which began 2021. Anna Wise, Director of the National Arts and Sciences Initiative at the PBK Society referred to USF students being named Key Scholars as becoming “spring tradition” for the university while speaking with Dean Charles Adams, President of the Eta of Florida Chapter of PBK at USF.  Audra joins past USF scholars Samuel Rechek, Sara Glaser, and Vaidehi Persad.

Audra was selected out of nearly 900 applicants from PBK chapter institutions around the nation and will receive mentoring toward engaged citizenship and a career in public service, attend a national convention with other Key Scholars in Washington DC this summer, and receive a $5,000 undergraduate scholarship. 

Audra, who calls Brandon, Florida home, majors in English and Political Science with a minor in Education. An Honors College course “Transforming America Through Science Fiction and Collaborative Storytelling” influenced her thinking about stories as a roadmap to social change. In Audra’s words “science fiction, in contrast to other genres, allows alternative view of futures – the desirable possibles.” Around the same time, she discovered the pioneering work of philosopher and educationist Martha Nussbaum, herself a member of PBK, who is celebrated for creating novel curricula combining a range of disciplines, including one in which Nussbaum connected legal ethics to opera to understand humanity better. Determined to understand the current state of English education at the K-12 level, Audra applied and was selected for the 2022 Legislative Internship Program. She interned with Hillsborough School board member Jessica Vaughn focusing on school improvement programs in neglected areas, educational budgeting, and gifted programming. She also networked with policy makers and legislators in Tallahassee and participated in a Senate floor debate. She followed up on this experience of Florida governance with attendance at the 2023 Future of Florida Summit, where her policy proposal on K-12 reform was awarded the best policy prize. 

Not quite content with experiences in the stratosphere of public policy making, Audra created a course-curriculum, “Art and Soul,” in which students are encouraged to explore dualities like love and loss through creative writing. She will teach this course in the fall 2023 semester. She was also named a 2022 UN Millennium Fellow for her project, “Educational Growth in Gardening” at the JGHC community garden. In this course, she explored ways postsecondary students view topics like food insecurity and sustainability during and after an experiential learning class. Martha Nussbaum may herself be proud of how Audra has been experimenting across genres, themes, and classroom settings to make stories the vehicle for effective learning and narrative empathy for the learner’s subject at hand. It is this spirt she aspires to bring to reshaping the course of K-5 English education. 

Audra plans to pursue an Education and Public Policy MPP/PhD program either at The College of William and Mary or at another university in a program of similar ethos upon graduating from USF in 2024.  For her PhD in Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership, she will focus on how leadership can enhance the effectiveness of complex educational organizations, while establishing a foundation in quantitative policy analysis. 

After completing her degrees, Audra harbors ambitions to work for an NGO like Narrative 4, which brings social-emotional learning to classrooms via a program called “story exchange.” In her NGO work, she will focus on data analysis to measure impacts of innovation in K-5, which may become the touchstone of her future efforts in evidence-based advocacy and planning in a leadership role of a school district or higher. Broadly, she aspires to advocate for experience-based curricula in K-12 schools through nonprofit work and government consultation.

Audra worked with Sayandeb Basu, Director of USF’s Office of National Scholars (ONS) in preparing her application for the 2023 Key into Public Service Scholarship as well as for her legislative internship and UN Millennium Fellowship applications. About her experience, Audra said “ONS has believed in me more than I believe in myself. They push me to grow faster, reach farther and think bigger than I ever have.”

To which, we at ONS can only remark after Martha Nussbaum— “you cannot really change the heart without telling a story.”