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Stellar student wins Truman Scholarship for leadership

April 02, 2007

It’s hard to say what may have impressed the Truman Scholarship Foundation committee the most, leading them to award a $30,000 scholarship to ASU junior Megan McGinnity this week.

Perhaps it was the commitment that led her to volunteer for eight months in a state-run orphanage in Romania, or the determination that drove her to confront the human slave traffic she encountered in African fishing villages last year.

Maybe it was the fact that they surprised her by conducting the first half of the Truman interview in French, and she smoothly answered them en français.

McGinnity, a petite political science and economics major with a blazing intellect and a sincere desire to improve the human condition, is one of a kind, her professors say.

The committee seemed to agree, awarding her the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship, the nation’s highest undergraduate leadership award given to about 75 college juniors each year who exhibit outstanding leadership potential and the intent to pursue careers in public service.

McGinnity, a graduate from Mesa’s Mountain View High School, had scarcely arrived at ASU in 2003 when she decided to make a difference in the lives of middle school students by creating a Model United Nations program for that age group. Inspired by her own high school experience with such a program, she researched similar efforts, joined with the YMCA to help children write papers and draft resolutions, and recruited ASU students to oversee debates. The effort was so successful that the program has continued and grown.

It was while studying in Romania on a National Security Education Program grant in 2005-2006 that she spent time with orphan children during one of the coldest winters in recent history. She shared her food with them, taught them crafts and listened to stories of hope despite their tragic circumstances. At that point, she was studying health care.

But through her work with orphans, she heard enough about the horrors of human trafficking that she applied for – and received – a Circumnavigators Scholarship to study the economics of such transactions around the globe.

What she found shocked her.

“The U.S. Department of State estimates that each year 800,000 people are sold or forced to work against their will in the illicit yet highly profitable business of human trafficking,” McGinnity says, “and there are vast profits in buying and selling people.

“But my conversations with fishermen in poverty-stricken African villages showed me why they felt driven to trade children. In turn, the children described their love for the parents who had sold them into slavery, something I found inconceivable. I was unprepared for the emotional turmoil of sorting out their complicated perspectives.”

Poor education, poverty, naiveté and entrenched cultural customs spur the problem, but it is driven by huge profits that fuel organized crime and even terrorism, she says. Simply creating laws to punish traffickers has not worked. McGinnity says she had to put aside her indignation to understand the problem – and to think about policy changes that might work.

“Choking down pig fat with workers in Phnom Penh and accepting lavish hospitality from Rwandans who have lived through hell taught me to see the persons lurking within the statistics,” she says. “Their stories anchor my vision and drive my passion for public service.”

Following her expected ASU graduation date in May 2008, McGinnity plans to enter a joint master’s program in foreign service and economics at Georgetown University. She wants to work as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, hoping to target the profits from human trafficking and safeguard the financial system against illicit use and security threats.

Allan DeSerpa, economics professor who is directing her honors thesis, is confident she will succeed. He praises her analytic ability and her work ethic, as well as “a level of energy, enthusiasm, professionalism and maturity that is rare even among experienced scholars.

“Never in 35 years of university teaching have I encountered a more impressive student,” he says. “She has earned my admiration in countless ways. I truly expect great things from her.”

At ASU, McGinnity has been a senator in Undergraduate Student Government and an undergraduate fellow in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. As a junior in Barrett, the Honors College, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, she already has been a course instructor in the political science department and a teaching assistant in the economics department.

In addition to funding for graduate school, the Truman award also includes a summer internship with a federal agency in Washington, D.C.