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Human rights, alternative energy interests of Marshall students

Sunday, December 21, 2003

By Lori Shontz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For Jessica Benson, the attraction was researching a specific type of organic material that she hopes can eventually produce an alternative form of energy -- not to mention the chance to finish a doctorate program in three years rather than five.

For Margaret Hagan, the idea was to study close up how outside organizations are trying to eventually build a stronger post-conflict society in Northern Ireland -- and to build on the similar research she is currently doing in Serbia.

The result for both Pittsburgh-area natives will be the chance to study in Great Britain under the Marshall Scholarships program, which provides exceptional American students with two-year scholarships to any university in the United Kingdom.

Benson, a 1999 graduate of Serra Catholic High School from McKeesport who will graduate from Ohio University in June, will study at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. She will be researching photovoltaics, organic material that can be used rather than silicon to take light from the sun and convert it into useable electricity.

"My majors are physics and mechanical engineering, but I've always had an interest in biology," Benson said. "I've also been interested in alternative energy for a while, just from discussions with family and people at school. And when I had the opportunity to develop my own research idea, when I really had to think, 'Boy, what would I do if I had the opportunity to research anything I wanted,' this was it."

Hagan, a 1999 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School, is finishing a one-year master's program in nationalism at Central Europe University in Budapest.

She will likely study at Queens University in Belfast. She previously studied comparative literature at the University of Chicago, where she was a 2002 student marshal, the highest honor given to an undergraduate student, and she has been involved since high school with human rights issues.

After working with Amnesty International and Just Harvest, Hagan became interested in looking at human rights and justice issues from an academic standpoint. She learned to speak Italian, Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian and for the past year she has been researching how human rights organizations in Serbia get grant money and how that money influences their work.

"When you're funding the processes of truth and reconciliation -- which get funding, which don't," she explained. "A lot of times in Serbia -- I'm not sure about Northern Ireland -- the groups who work for human rights, they're just dismissed as Western imperialists, the U.S. trying to control Serbia, even when there's a value to it."

Hagan wants to see if such attitudes can be overcome.

The students leave for Britain next fall.

The Marshall Scholarships were established in 1953 as a way to acknowledge the special link between Great Britain and the United States. The 50 th anniversary of the program was celebrated here two months ago during Prince Andrew's visit.

Lori Shontz can be reached at or 412-263-1722.

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