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Academic star wins top honor from USA Today

February 14, 2008

A stellar ASU student whose academic career has blazed a bright trail through the university has won top national honors from USA Today.

Megan McGinnity, a 22-year-old senior who traveled around the world studying child slavery and human trafficking, is featured in the newspaper’s Feb. 14 issue as one of 20 students named to the All-USA College Academic First Team for exceptional intellectual achievement and leadership.

ASU has had more students named to the prestigious award than any other public university in the nation, with 11 students winning first-team honors in 16 years. Only Harvard, Yale and Duke have had more students win the honor.

A national team of judges selects top students based on grades, leadership, activities, and how students extend their intellectual talents beyond the classroom. More than 600 students were nominated by colleges and universities across the United States.

Each year, USA Today chooses 20 students each for the first, second and third teams. At least 20 ASU students have been selected for the three teams over the years. First team members receive $2,500, a photo and profile in the newspaper and a reception at the newspaper’s headquarters in Arlington, Va.

ASU students’ notable success in scholarship competitions may stem from the fact that they have so many opportunities to pursue their interests outside the classroom and such strong support from ASU faculty, according to Janet Burke, associate dean for national scholarships at Barrett, the Honors College.

McGinnity won a Truman Scholarship in 2007 and a Marshall Scholarship this year, both extremely competitive awards that fund graduate study.

Thirteen ASU students have won Marshalls and 14 have won Trumans in the past 16 years – an amazing record.

Burke says that, while ASU draws many bright, ambitious and talented students, the research and travel opportunities offered them and the attention from faculty are key factors.

“As I look at the students who have won during these years, they are all the beneficiaries of some wonderful opportunities at ASU as well as faculty who were willing to mentor them,” she says. “I talked with my counterpart at (another leading university), who has never had a student even invited to a Marshall interview. She sought me out to find out why we always get interviews and often get Marshalls. In going over things with her, I discovered that, although she has wonderful students with whom to work, they consistently get to their senior year without getting to know any senior faculty. They have had no mentoring.

“By contrast, we have students going forward all the time with tremendously strong, detailed letters coming from the most senior of faculty.”

Allan DeSerpa, ASU economics professor, has gotten to know McGinnity quite well. He taught her for three years, worked with her in the Student Economics Association and directed her honors thesis. He also corresponded with her during her study year in Romania, when her volunteer work in an orphanage led to her interest in human trafficking.

She told him about the horrors of people being sold into slavery and prostitution, and later she began studying the economics of such transactions around the globe, talking to families and children affected by the crime. She dedicated herself to eradicating the practice, writing her thesis about it and speaking regularly to community groups.

“Megan is a true role model not only for her peers, but also for me,” DeSerpa says. “She has earned my admiration in countless ways. It would be hard to find anyone with a stronger commitment to service. More importantly, Megan embodies the blend of talents that will enable her to convert that commitment into concrete results.

“She is a well-disciplined thinker with a good balance of mathematical, verbal and analytical skills. Her work habits reveal a level of energy, enthusiasm, professionalism and maturity that is rare even among experienced scholars. I admire her fine sense of ethics and social consciousness, which is with her at all times.

“I advise others to remember her name, as they will hear it again. Never in 35 years of university teaching have I encountered a more impressive student.”

At 22, McGinnity has traveled on her own around the world more than once, and studied child slavery in Ghana, India, Cambodia and the Middle East. Last summer, she learned Arabic while studying in Egypt, where she also gained an American fiancé. Her plans include influencing public policy through work in diplomacy, intelligence and academic writing.

She will graduate May 8 from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Barrett, the Honors College.