With the support of alumni and friends, grad students excel on the job market

Stephanie M. Scott
November 19, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When asked to describe the impact of alumni and friends’ support on graduate education, Scott Bennett, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts, doesn’t miss a beat.

“Critical,” he says with certainty, “especially as graduate students reach the point in their education where their research is really taking off.”

As the head of the college’s office responsible for awarding fellowships and research and travel stipends to master’s and doctoral students, Bennett is uniquely familiar with the opportunities that private philanthropy gives liberal arts graduate students as they prepare to launch their academic careers. Private philanthropy helps students conduct archival research, present their findings at international conferences, and collaborate across disciplinary boundaries.

Leigha MacNeill

Leigha MacNeill

IMAGE: Courtesy of Leigha MacNeill

Recent graduates Leigha MacNeill (doctorate, 2019, psychology) and Johann Le Guelte (doctorate, 2019, French and Francophone studies) know firsthand how these opportunities pay off. Thanks in part to alumni and friends’ generosity, MacNeill and Le Guelte landed coveted positions at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, respectively. 

MacNeill studies the development of anxiety in infants and young children with a focus on how children attend and respond to behaviors and emotions within their family systems. While many researchers have taken a strictly behavioral approach to this topic, MacNeill considers both behavioral and neurological factors that may play a role, asking how children develop particular patterns of attention to threat. Her ultimate goal is to conduct research that contributes to the development of interventions that help parents both acknowledge and decrease their children’s levels of anxiety.

With the support of the college’s Robert and Ruth Faris Child Psychology Fund, MacNeill was able to travel to Philadelphia to present her research at the International Congress of Infant Studies. Before arriving at the conference, MacNeill reached out to Cathi Propper, senior scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill, who encouraged MacNeill to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship in her laboratory through the Carolina Consortium on Human Development’s T32 postdoctoral training program. Upon graduating in August, MacNeill joined Propper at UNC. MacNeill is particularly glad to have received the fellowship because it gives her the opportunity to expand upon her own research projects and develop her career under Propper’s mentorship.

Receiving the fellowship reinforced for MacNeill the importance of choosing a graduate program that provides robust support for its students. For MacNeill, the college’s program in developmental psychology was just that. Remarking on her success, MacNeill said, “I credit my job to my attendance at the International Congress, which would not have been possible without the support of the college and its alumni and friends.”

Johann Le Guelte

Johann Le Guelte

IMAGE: Courtesy of Johann Le Guelte

Like MacNeill, Johann Le Guelte believes his success on the job market is due in part to the opportunities the college provided him. Le Guelte studies the visual rhetoric of the post-World War I French colonial state. He explores how French government-run economic agencies in territories such as western Africa deployed photographs of seemingly benevolent interactions in an attempt to mask the government’s brutality toward colonial subjects. Le Guelte also considers how colonial subjects renegotiated their identities with the help of local portrait photographers who provided access to the same tool, the camera, that the French empire had at its disposal. These portraits of resistance are difficult to locate, though; they are not housed in traditional brick-and-mortar archives or even online.

Thanks in part to an award made possible by the Marian Trygve Freed Centennial Graduate Endowment, Le Guelte was able to travel to Senegal to gain access to the portraits. When he arrived in Senegal, Le Guelte met two individuals with connections to Senegalese photographic history. Energized by Le Guelte’s work, they took him around Senegal, introducing him to relatives and friends, including some direct descendants of early Senegalese photographers, who assisted him in locating images from the interwar years. This archival work became a focus of Le Guelte’s scholarship, ultimately helping him attract the interest of nearly a dozen colleges and universities while on the academic job market. 

Having recently started in a tenure-track position at Xavier University, Le Guelte is grateful for the college’s support of his intervention into conversations regarding interwar visual rhetoric. “Archivization works differently in western Africa,” he remarks. “Because photographs are not in traditional archives, like they often are here, it was important for me to have the opportunity to meet people and listen to their stories. Because of the college and its generous donors, I was able to do that.”

While at Penn State, MacNeill and Le Guelte were recognized for their scholarship, each receiving the Alumni Association Dissertation Award and Distinguished Doctoral Scholar Medal for the 2018–2019 academic year. This award, made possible by a gift from the Penn State Alumni Association, recognizes graduate students who have distinguished themselves as scholars and colleagues. As MacNeill and Le Guelte settle into their new positions, they remain appreciative of the foundation the college gave them and excited about building bridges between the intellectual community they found at Penn State and the ones they are discovering at their new institutions.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 19, 2019