SMPA research awards to honor retiring professors

The School of Media and Public Affairs will add two undergraduate research awards next fall named after retiring professors Jarol Manheim and Christopher Sterling.

The school will offer a Manheim-Sterling research prize to an undergraduate in each of the school’s two majors – journalism and political communication – as part of the University’s broader efforts to widen the pool of money for students with research ambitions.

“I’m hoping that this is something that will be able to grow over the years. This constitutes true growth [for the school],” SMPA Director Frank Sesno said. “Anything that we can do that encourages and helps students do more independent work I think is great.”

Sesno said the school will announce individual prize totals later in the year. A specific fundraising goal for the one-time prize has not yet been set, he said.

Students who earn the prizes will work on research with a faculty member, present an academic paper at a conference or work abroad on a reporting project, Sesno said.

The awards will become the school’s first in-house research funding that is available to students in both majors.

While the school’s main undergraduate research prize – the SMPA-Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting student fellowship – offers a student the funds to investigate an underreported news story abroad, the Manheim-Sterling awards will include the research-focused political communication major.

Efforts to boost undergraduate research across GW have been spotlighted this year by Provost Steven Lerman, who added $100,000 to the University’s undergraduate research pool, with about one-third going toward students and the remaining two-thirds serving as matching funds for faculty.

Paul Hoyt-O’Connor, director of the University’s Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research, said experiences provided by undergraduate research are ones that students “can’t get elsewhere.”

“Undergraduate research is more than just sitting in a classroom. It is a high-impact experience, allowing students to delve more deeply into their disciplines and appropriate their own learning,” he said.

Hoyt-O’Connor said schools at GW typically offer their own undergraduate research awards, but communication and marketing of the prizes need to improve.

Columbian College Dean Peg Barratt said the college as a whole is looking to improve its advertising of student research opportunities, focusing especially on reaching out to “the real go-getter freshmen.”

“We want to put this on students’ minds earlier and try to have faculty on the lookout for students who could be developed into somebody who has an independent research project,” Barratt said.

Manheim and Sterling, the award’s namesakes, accepted the University’s 2010 voluntary retirement offer to the longest-serving faculty members of Columbian College.

Manheim, the founding director of SMPA, joined GW in 1987 and led the development of the political communication major. He specializes in strategic political communication and has written several books on the subject.

When he was an undergraduate, Manheim said a professor mentored him in his own research project – a process he learned was instrumental to motivating students.

“In a way, it is probably the reason I followed the career path that I did,” he said. “I learned a lot about independent thinking, time management and, of course, the research process, all focusing on the excitement of actually having my own research findings.”

Sterling, who joined the GW faculty in 1982, penned a journalism encyclopedia with contributions from SMPA professors and graduate students three years ago.

While not every student wants to focus on research, Sterling said finding students who do is rewarding.

“Learning about the process and being able to do it is excellent experience for so many career paths,” Sterling said.

Sterling will continue his roles as the Columbian College’s associate dean for special projects, which he began in July, and as an adjunct professor, teaching graduate classes in SMPA as well as in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.

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