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Honors student sees world with economist's eye

October 21, 2008

(Part 2 in a 3-part series): Students entering programs at Arizona State University increasingly expect research experience early in their undergraduate studies. Seeking more profound and hands-on learning in their field, they want to graduate with some depth of experience that can only be gained through research. Barrett, The Honors College at ASU, has used these research opportunities as a recruitment tool to attract bright young minds. But as more and more graduate programs and employment opportunities require undergraduate research, disciplines across the university have seen the value the experience offers students. The result is a richly rewarding academic experience, for both students and their mentors. 

Megan McGinnity dreamed of being a professional ballerina or a violinist. She was proficient at both. Then she entered the eighth grade. It was there that she discovered a passion for politics through the Arizona YMCA’s Youth in Government Program.

McGinnity participated in the model legislature for five years. She wrote legislation, acted as lobbyist, and as an aide. She also served as the attorney general. She formed her own political platform based on social idealism. Her senior year she was elected governor.

“I was not convinced I wanted to be governor,” she recalls. “But I did not think any of the other candidates would do as good a job.”

That statement pretty much sums up why she has been able to accomplish so much during her undergraduate years at Arizona State University. Megan McGinnity possesses a spirit of adventure and responsibility that was nurtured by her parents’ gift of allowing her to dream and giving her wings.

Janet Burke is associate dean at Barrett, the Honors College at ASU. She actively recruited McGinnity.

“Megan was the number one graduate from Mesa Mountain View High School, a very highly regarded, very competitive school. So we knew she was extraordinary just from that point of view,” she says. “We felt very strongly that she would benefit enormously from all the resources at ASU. We knew she would take advantage of them. In fact, she came in to see me very early in her freshman year so she could get started doing interesting and unusual things, beginning with signing up to study Romanian in addition to her French.”

McGinnity had already completed 48 hours of advanced placement credit when she started her college career. That made her the equivalent of a second semester sophomore/first semester junior. She jumped right into upper division classes majoring in political science and French and funded by a Flinn Scholarship.

The Flinn Foundation offers 20 such scholarships to outstanding Arizona students. The intent is to discourage a brain drain of young talent to top universities out of state. Tuition, room, board and travel expenses are covered by the generous award.

McGinnity also took a couple of classes in economics. She realized that quantitative skills and the rational, logical discipline made sense to her. Allan De Serpa is an economics professor in the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU. He recognized McGinnity’s talent in the first class she had with him.

“I could tell that Megan was very bright from the first homework assignment that she turned in. Within a month or so, I gradually became aware of the depth and breadth of her abilities,” he explains. “Microeconomics requires a wide range of skills—math, writing, analytical—and Megan had them all.”

At the end of her first year at ASU, McGinnity attended a Flinn Foundation Eastern European Seminar. She stayed on for the summer to work in a private Romanian orphanage.

The orphanage was a caring place for the children. However, the sheer number of abandoned babies and their underdeveloped and malnourished little bodies saddened McGinnity.

“It really affected me; it will always stay with me,” she says.

Then she found that the Romanian babies were not open to international adoption. There is a concern that the babies would be trafficked through corrupt procedures. That is when McGinnity got interested in the topic of human trafficking. The topic would become her thesis.

“I corresponded with her during her year in Romania when she first became interested in human trafficking,” says DeSerpa. “I had the privilege of directing her honors thesis and continuing to provide mentoring and support for her activities. Working with Megan has made me a better professor and a better person. Contributing to her education is very likely the most important thing I will ever do.”

The following year, McGinnity returned to Romania to study. While there she applied for a prestigious Circumnavigators Grant through the Arizona chapter of the International Circumnavigators Club.

“You create your own research project. But you must go to a minimum of five countries on three continents in one direction going around the world,” the ASU student explains. “You can research whatever you want and choose whatever countries you want to go to.”

McGinnity applied to study the global economics of human trafficking and was awarded the grant. She traveled for 10 weeks in 10 countries in the summer of 2006. She started in Washington, D. C., and moved on to the European Union headquarters in Belgium and the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“From there I went to Ghana to visit a child slave project on Lake Volta. Next was Rwanda to look at how former child soldiers are being reintegrated into society there,” McGinnity says. “I then headed over to India. I did most of my work outside Allahabad. I looked at bonded laborers there and how they are trying to gain their freedom.”

She visited Southeast Asia on the last leg of her journey. McGinnity studied the sex trade in Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia. She ended her travels with visits to Latin America.

The plight of the people caught up in human trafficking is harrowing. But McGinnity has learned to see the issue through the lens of an economist.

“I think it’s a great way of thinking about the world. Economics explains peoples’ incentives. You can’t just look at one isolated variable. You have to look at all of the incentives interacting with each other,” she explains. “With human trafficking you see there are reasons besides people just being evil. There might be solutions that change the incentive structure so that we can work towards a solution to otherwise daunting problems.”

McGinnity spent the summer of 2007 in a State Department Critical Language Program studying Arabic in Egypt. While there she met a fellow student whose scholarship and social consciousness matched her own. Steele Brand proposed to McGinnity in February. They married following her graduation from ASU in May 2008.

What might seem like a propitious ending to her incredible undergraduate journey at ASU is really just another beginning. McGinnity was awarded a Marshall Scholarship which funds two years of graduate study in the United Kingdom. She will simultaneously pursue two masters’ degrees—Intelligence and International Security and Middle East Politics. Brand will complete his dissertation and work as an ancient historian, potentially with the British Museum.

Sheilah Britton,
(480) 965-0413