The journey to grad school

Written by: 
Marsha Sowell ('10)

In 2007, I came to UNT in hopes of becoming the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. At the time, I didn’t know what graduate school was. Now — with my eternal thanks to the Honors College, the Ronald E. McNair program and the faculty of UNT — I have a $120,000 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to begin work toward my Ph.D. at Penn State.

I came from a small high school where few students go on to college.  My first semester at UNT, I didn’t have a lot of financial support, so I shared a room in College Inn and lived on Ramen noodles. I got a job at Bruce Cafeteria so I could eat a free meal —
I was the lady who wiped off the tables and refilled the mayo. The next semester I was lucky. I received scholarships and could buy decent groceries. It was nice not having to worry so much.

Then the Honors College recommended that I apply for the McNair program, which prepares first-generation, low-income or under-represented college juniors and seniors for graduate school. I chose to study political science because I thought I wanted to become a lawyer, but when I learned about the Rwandan genocide, I wanted to study human rights.

Learn more about Marsha

Video: Marsha talks about her NSF fellowship and UNT

Read her full story

After being accepted to the McNair program, I found my faculty mentor, James Meernik, and he and the McNair staff guided me through the maze of learning the craft of research.

My first time on an airplane was when the McNair program funded a trip so I could present my research at a conference. Now, I’ve been to California, New York, New Orleans, St. Louis and Chicago. As an undergraduate, it’s rare to attend these conferences and it can be intimidating to go into a room filled with people who know so much more than you. It’s definitely a learning experience. I would present a poster or paper, be scared to death, get over it, get the experience.

I’ve focused my research on determining why international human rights organizations report heavily on some countries and not at all on others. After taking an international conflict class with Michael Greig, I’m now investigating the impact of human rights reporting on the intensity of civil conflicts. To make a student interested enough in a topic to go study it on her own — that says something about the quality of teaching.

I also was lucky enough to be an undergraduate teaching assistant for Kimi King, which showed me why I want to become a professor. She gets such participation from her students that she makes a large class feel small. To see a teacher like that was one of my greatest experiences at UNT.

I plan to become a professor, act as a mentor and continue conducting research on human rights and conflict. It’s exciting to find something that no one else knows and to share that knowledge. One day I hope to help someone the way Dr. Meernik helped me, and I want to be as good a teacher as Dr. King.

I don’t know if I’ll impact the world, but I want to impact those around me.

Marsha Sowell (’10) earned her bachelor’s degree in political science in three years and begins her doctoral studies this fall. She’s inspired her mother and older sister to attend college, too.

Continue Reading