SCETL, economics double major aims high

Jonah McCoy is going on to pursue PhD from University of Houston, credits academic rigor for his achievements

April 28, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Jonah McCoy is not shy about his academic achievements and career goals. Jonah McCoy ASU graduate Jonah McCoy is a double major in civic and economic thought and leadership and in economics. He aims at winning prestigious Leo Strauss Award. Download Full Image

I seek to become a peer with my mentors,” he said.

The Arizona State University graduate — an early adopter of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) program — is confident about his future. In the fall of 2022, Jonah will start his PhD in political philosophy at the University of Houston, a well-deserved recognition of his academic skills.

“Jonah's talent and commitment to the life of the mind were immediately apparent to all of us in those early days of SCETL, when Jonah was one of our first majors,” said Assistant Professor Karen Taliaferro, adding, “I have come to see how exceptional he is not only in his intelligence but in his determination and perseverance. Beyond this, he is a fundamentally kindhearted person.”

Born in Fresno, California, Jonah moved with his family to Nogales, Arizona, when he was in second grade. He says he knew at an early age that he would follow an academic career, and in 2017 he joined ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College as an economics major, but his path took a slight turn in the fall of that year.

Question: How did you learn about SCETL?

Answer: I walked by a flyer on campus promoting the Civic Discourse Project lecture series on “Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity,” and I started attending the events. Then in the following summer, I enrolled in SCETL’s Summer Leadership Seminar “Shakespeare's Leadership Lessons” in Sedona, and it was delightful. That week, I met phenomenal people, including Cameron Vega and Robert Bartlemay, among others. That experience pushed me to enroll in CEL 100 with Professor Karen Taliaferro, who became a prominent figure in my life. Then came a course on religion with Professor Paul Carrese, and when I realized I was getting a major in civic and economic thought and leadership. One realizes one is in the right place. Things happen for a reason.

Jonah McCoy reads aloud from "Henry V." during the summer of 2018 course in Sedona

Jonah McCoy reads aloud from Shakespeare's "Henry V" during the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership's summer 2018 course in Sedona, Arizona.

Q: Which course was your favorite?

A: I can’t say there was a SCETL course that wasn’t phenomenal.

Q: What makes SCETL so special?

A: It’s a community of like-minded individuals. We are all interested in these important topics in a department that encourages free and open debate. We are free to disagree and discuss everything. At SCETL, I have never met slouchers. Every student at the school is a mover and shaker. Everyone goes on to do big things, to become student body presidents, top-level students participating in big projects that matter, and so on. Ultimately, it’s the quality of students. SCETL doesn’t attract mediocrity. They are all bright, genuinely phenomenal individuals, and do amazing things. SCETL people think big and have big dreams. It comes from the faculty. They are all intentionally here to provide an education, not just a degree.

Q: How did your peers push you forward?

A: At SCETL, one can’t be intellectually complacent because one is surrounded by great thinkers. The debates we engage with at the school challenge you, and you will be called out if you say nonsensical claims. This community of thinkers encourages you to substantiate yourself.

Q: Did you ever think you would pursue a career in classical education?

A: My understanding at the time was that classical education was in full retreat across the country when I came in. And today I am who I am, and I am going where I am going because of SCETL’s faculty. I will receive a doctorate degree fully funded from the University of Houston, and I am grateful to Professor Michael Zuckert, who identified in me the potential to do it. He found a place that is amicable to me and went out of his way to help find a good fit for me.

Q: What is your goal?

A: I want to teach at a place like SCETL. It’s the only thing I see myself doing: teaching at a place like this, surrounding myself with pupils and seeking truth through dialogue and inquiry.

Q: What would you say to an incoming SCETL student?

A: Embrace this small, phenomenal community. Go to the events, become the spirit of it. Making connections with your peers is one of the most important parts of this education. It’s a fantastic cohort.

Q: What is your favorite part about SCETL?

A: The faculty. If SCETL didn’t believe in the education it offers, it could not be what it is, and students would not go as far as they go.

Q: What is the biggest takeaway from your experience as a SCETL major?

A: The absolute beauty of political philosophy, which led me to become a Tocqueville scholar.

Q: What is your bedside-table favorite Tocqueville book?

A:The Ancient Regime.” It’s his most important book, in my opinion.

Q: What comes after your doctorate degree?

A: That’s easy. The Leo Strauss Award from the American Political Philosophy Association for my dissertation. I am interested in breaking trends and going off to do something new with bold ideas.

Marcia Paterman Brookey

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership


Political psychology graduate aims to improve collective action in politics

Using psychology to improve representation and action

April 28, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Ashley Brennan, a 2016 psychology and human rights graduate from Arizona State University is graduating with a master's degree in political psychology and is currently the organizing director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Ashley Brennan Ashley Brennan, a 2016 psychology and human rights graduate from Arizona State University recently completed her master's degree in political psychology and is currently the Organizing Director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Download Full Image

Brennan’s career in politics began with an initial dream of becoming a social psychologist. After graduation, she planned on working for a few years to gain experience in participatory budgeting or the act of including the input of normal civilians in budget allocation, and then return to study for a doctorate. 

“As an undergraduate, I went to Romania and interviewed 50 young people who were a part of the first group of young people to be able to have a say over how a part of their city's budget was spent,” Brennan said. “It was amazing to learn the theory behind it but I was craving the experience of actually doing it.”

After that thesis experience, she was hooked. Brennan moved to the Bay Area in California to gain hands-on experience with participatory budgeting and began traveling the country implementing participatory budgeting programs. 

“After doing participatory budgeting for three or four years across the nation, we were approaching the 2020 election and I was starting to feel like I was loving what I was doing, but like many people, I was just freaked out by what was going on nationally and wanted to be a part of shaping and deciding who our next president would be,” Brennan said. 

Her fascination with collective action and altruism then led her to an unlikely next step – Iowa, and campaigning. 

“A side gig teaching group fitness classes connected me with someone in Elizabeth Warren’s campaign and she was my dream candidate –  it takes a really special kind of elected official to give up a portion of their money and power and she was that candidate.”

Brennan picked up and moved to Iowa for 111 days, organizing a political strategy and campaign across a tiny, rural, conservative county. She went door to door trying to convince an older population in the middle of winter to support Warren’s campaign. 

When the Warren campaign conceded and the pandemic shut everything down, Brennan reconnected with Arizona and joined the legislative races. 

“I had the honor of being the manager for one of our targeted races in an effort to flip the legislature and win Democratic majorities for the first time since 1966,” Brennan said. “While we had some losses, we held the line and gained a seat in the House and in the Senate.” 

After working full-time for a number of years, Brennan was committed to not going back to school. She felt like the field and practice was where she wanted to be, but after making the shift into the campaign world, she found herself running into questions that didn’t have answers. 

“On the drive back home to Tucson one day, something clicked and I started a voice memo about all the questions I was thinking about and I just couldn’t stop. I got home and began searching for what programs could help provide guidance on these questions and I found this program. It was a perfect fit,” Brennan said. 

“It was everything I wanted and I already loved ASU. I could pursue the degree online while working full-time and I got to immediately apply everything I was learning in my courses to the actual political world. From writing persuasive scripts for canvassers to reducing barriers to signatures, training people to be really friendly and complimentary, or manipulating peripheral cues to improve the signature collection, the program allowed me to put theory into practice immediately.”

She also believes that her background in psychology made her switch to the political campaign world much easier. 

“It's been my personal mission to bring a lot of the democratic and collaborative and transparent practices of the grassroots participatory budgeting, organizing world into the much more structured machine hierarchical campaign world,” Brennan said. 

“Something that we're working towards here and that a lot of I think states and programs are working on is not just talking to voters right before the election,” said Brennan, “but how do we conduct organizing in a way that is more relational and a little bit less transactional. Our focus is, how do we build teams across the state of volunteers who are literally just talking to their friends and families and neighbors about things they really care about.”

One thing that Brennan wanted to stress is that everyday people have the power to come together and organize towards a shared goal. Young people and students have the ability from a grassroots level to produce massive change that can really impact lives. 

“It is tough to conceptualize what one vote really can do, but at the state legislature and local levels, those races are won and lost by only hundreds of votes,” Brennan said. “It is a powerful realization to know that what I say and who I speak to does matter and it can change someone's life.”

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology