Kent State Graduate Is Named 2018 Portz Scholar
The National Collegiate Honors Council has named recent Kent State University graduate Megan Swoger a 2018 Portz Scholar.
Ms. Swoger is the ninth Kent State student to receive the honor since the inception of the Portz Scholars competition in 1990.
“We are very pleased for her and, of course, delighted that another Honors College student at Kent State has become a Portz Scholar,” said Alison Smith, Ph.D., dean of Kent State’s Honors College. “This is really great news.”
Ms. Swoger graduated magna cum laude from Kent State in May, with a double degree in International Relations and French Literature, Culture and Translation, with a minor in Women’s Studies. At Kent State, Ms. Swoger also was a member of the Provost’s Leadership Academy, was a mentor in the Global Ambassador Program and was a mentee in the Women’s Center Mentorship Program.
Her winning thesis is titled, “Analysis of the Prevailing Practice of FGM in Ghana: Are domestic laws and international treaties effective in the eradication of FGM within the state?”
Ms. Swoger, who is currently spending a year traveling throughout the Middle East before she begins graduate school in 2019, said she was “shocked, honored and humbled” to learn that she was a Portz winner.
“I owe the success of this thesis in large part to my thesis adviser, Dr. Julie Mazzei. Without all of her support and time and efforts put into aiding me edit and revise the writing in such a short time frame, it wouldn't have been possible,” Ms. Swoger said. Dr. Mazzei is a professor in the Department of Political Science in Kent State’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Ms. Swoger took advantage of several opportunities to study abroad during her time at Kent State, including two months of intensive language study in France, a semester at the University of Ghana and a second trip to Ghana, specifically to collect additional data for her research.
“I was overwhelmed with all of the opportunities,” she said.
Ms. Swoger said she was looking for an experience to take her “out of my comfort zone and expand my world view.” She began researching study programs in Africa and eventually settled on Ghana.
Ms. Swoger was accepted into Kent State’s Honors College during her junior year. She applied in order to become better prepared for graduate school and to gain more formal research skills. “My first thought was to write a thesis,” she said.
Since she already was spending the semester studying at the University of Ghana, and working as a Parliamentary Assistant there, she said it made sense to focus her research on a topic from that country. Ms. Swoger said the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM), which is widely practiced in the countries of northern Africa, concerned her and was appropriate to both her International Relations major and Women’s Studies minor.
FGM, she said, “was an issue I felt very passionate about.” Swoger discovered that Ghana actually had an extremely low rate of FGM.
“Seeing that Ghana was somewhat of a success story in the face of FGM, I decided to explore that through focusing on policy effectiveness, since the practice did still continue in small numbers. I wanted to see why that was, in order to be able to understand the bigger picture of why the practice might be continuing at much higher rates in other countries, and also what had worked/failed with Ghana's efforts,” she explained.
The process of conducting her research was complicated, from satisfying the concerns of Kent State’s Institutional Review Board, which has jurisdiction over studies involving humans, to dealing with the geography and politics of a remote region of a developing country. The $1,000 she received from a Kent State Honors Thesis Fellowship literally saved her research project, because it enabled her to make a second trip to Ghana to continue conducting research over winter break, after her semester there had concluded.
A professor of Gender Studies at the University in Ghana had made a contact for her with the chief of the city of Wa in the Upper West region of the country, one of the few cities still known to practice FGM in secret. The chief was to help her establish relationships within the community and introduce her to town midwives to interview about the practice.
To conduct her research, Ms. Swoger literally rode on the back of a motorbike between eight villages, escorted by one of her professor’s doctoral students, while conducting interviews with a wide range of participants, not the midwives she had planned to interview.
“It was utter chaos, but the experience was much more enriching, and my data significantly more diverse, so the debacle thankfully worked in my favor,” she said. She spent several more days in the capital city of Accra conducting interviews with government officials and law enforcement agents who would speak with her.
Once back in Kent, Ms. Swoger then juggled the tasks of writing her thesis, finishing the Spring 2018 Semester with 21 credit hours, while working and completing a local internship. Due to her heavy load, Ms. Swoger was worried that she had not devoted enough time to writing the thesis and credits Dr. Mazzei for the necessary help to get it done.
Dean Smith described Ms. Swoger’s project as “a standout.”
“It was extraordinarily well-written and put together,” she said, noting that the thesis topic was not only very serious, but also controversial.
Honors College students, Dean Smith said, produce many worthy undergraduate research projects each year, and selecting just one to enter for the Portz Scholars competition is a challenge. She said Kent State’s Honors College students typically devote three semesters to their research.
“That means they are able to really do a deep dive into the particular area they have chosen, not only immerse in that topic, but network with professors here and also at national meetings and workshops. They get a complete taste of what research is like for that discipline they are pursuing,” she said.
The dean believes that three semester time frame gives Kent State an edge over other universities and has enabled Kent students to win the Portz award so many times.
“For us to have nine winners is really extraordinary,” Dean Smith said.
The National Collegiate Honors Council is an educational organization that supports and promotes undergraduate honors education. It has nearly 900 member institutions and hundreds of individual members, encompassing more than 330,000 honors college students. Each year, the National Collegiate Honors Council invites its member institutions to nominate one research paper written by an undergraduate honors college student for the Portz Scholars competition.
Ms. Swoger, a native of Center Township near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said she is currently considering various graduate schools, where she intends to study Human Rights Law or International and Comparative Law or International Affairs. Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, is her current top candidate.
The Portz Scholar prize includes a $350 stipend. The winners also receive the honor of presenting their research at the National Collegiate Honors Council annual conference.
“I am very excited to have the opportunity to present my research findings and share information regarding such an important topic to women's health and women's rights,” Ms. Swoger said, adding that while she was both nervous and excited about her upcoming presentation, she was looking forward to listening to “the impressive work of the other three Portz prize winners.”