Students gain hands-on experience at terrorism research center

December 11, 2012

Three years ago, Danna O’Rourke was unsure of the career path she wanted to pursue with her English degree. An internship with the International Center for the Study of Terrorism (ICST) at Penn State provided new opportunities that firmly set O’Rourke on a future career in terrorism studies and analysis.

“Interning for ICST was challenging, rigorous and, at times, draining,” said O'Rourke, now a 2012 liberal arts graduate. “Beyond learning from my work, I was fortunate enough to learn from the Fellows and post-docs who were always kind enough to offer networking assistance and a lot of encouragement.”

The International Center for the Study of Terrorism has provided life-changing educational and career enrichment experiences for more than 350 Penn State undergraduates like O’Rourke, who served as interns or assistants for numerous research projects since the center’s inception in 2006. After graduating this past May, O’Rourke began advanced studies at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. She also serves as a research assistant for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, headquartered at Maryland.

Over the past six years, the center has hosted nearly 20 multi-disciplinary research projects led by prominent scholars both here and abroad, garnering more than $10 million in grants. The grants fund research, equipment and travel costs for faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. The undergraduate internships are unpaid but offer students the opportunity to receive academic credit. The internships have attracted dozens of undergraduate students each semester from the College of the Liberal Arts and other academic colleges because of the opportunities to work on timely issues facing our society.

“Undergraduate interns have proven to be critical to our research efforts,” explained John Horgan, ICST director and associate professor of psychology. “Many of our projects require large-scale analysis and coding from a variety of sources, including books, newspapers, and other media accounts. Our interns are the backbone of this data collection. For our most recent project, interns have analyzed more than 80 terrorist autobiographies, providing us with critical information on the diverse pathways into and out of terrorism. At the same time, the interns gain a hands-on introduction to the field of terrorism studies. Many of our interns have an interest in pursuing a career in counter-terrorism, public policy, or intelligence, and our internship program offers important professional development for them.”

This fall, nearly 40 undergraduate students are working on a three-year project that examines how terrorists decide to leave terrorist organizations. The interns received 25 hours of initial training in data collection and processing. Throughout the semester, they completed assigned readings, attended regular meetings with postdoctoral fellows and graduate research assistants, and conducted data analysis relevant to their research project. Some have chosen to write a research paper in order to earn academic credit for their internship. The project is led by Horgan and is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and coordinated through the United Kingdom Home Office.

“I think what I enjoy most about this work has been its timeliness,” said Travis Parrott, a current ICST intern with an international politics major and global security minor. “Terrorism has become such a predominant fixture in the world that the opportunity to contribute to understanding the phenomenon is a tremendous chance to make a difference. You don’t often get an opportunity in undergraduate studies to put your skills to work in such a concrete fashion.”

The newest research endeavor will be two studies of violent extremism among Somali refugee groups in North America. The Center is part of a research collaborative that recently received grants totaling $1.48 million from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Minerva Research Initiative and the National Institute of Justice. Horgan will partner with Heidi Ellis and others from the Center for Refugee Trauma and Resilience at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard University to study factors that promote or prevent violent extremist activities among Somali-American young adults.

“The targeted radicalization of refugee groups is already a national security concern,” said Horgan. “As these groups continue to resettle in communities around the world, helping to protect those communities by identifying the factors that prevent violent extremism will become increasingly important.”

This project will provide internships for another dozen undergraduates starting in Fall 2013, including psychology, political science, and international studies majors. Like Danna and Travis, these students will be able to take the knowledge gained from their classroom studies and apply it to real-world situations and gain critical career experience.

O’Rourke said, “The internship has given me a distinct perspective on the why, who, and when of contemporary affairs and policies. It developed not only my critical thinking and communications skills, but it has made me a more interested and concerned citizen.”




  • Student interns at International Center for the Study of Terrorism play a key role in data collection for research projects.

Last Updated December 18, 2012