Senior wins prestigious Marshall scholarship

From CLAS in the news:

Michelle Prairie, a Presidential Scholar from Vernon, Conn., with a perfect 4.0 grade average, will spend the next two years in the United Kingdom studying for two master’s degrees in development economics.

She is the only student at a public institution in New England selected as a Marshall Scholar for 2009. The other New England winners were four students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, three from Harvard, two from Boston College, and one each from Princeton and Middlebury.

Prairie will study for one year each either at the University of Nottingham and the London School of Economics and Political Science, or at the University of Warwick and the School of Advanced Study of the University of London.

She plans to become a professor of development economics, focusing her research on income inequality, particularly in Latin America, and on the effects of trade, aid, and government policies on the distribution of wealth. Eventually she hopes to be a policy analyst for the United Nations, the World Bank, or the U.S. government.

Prairie, who was valedictorian of her senior class at Rockville High School, entered UConn hoping to study international business. In her second semester she took an economics course and “something just clicked,” she recalls. She became an economics major in CLAS, where she has interned for the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis and for Associate Professor Susan Randolph (IDEAS), whose research focuses on development economics.

President Michael J. Hogan, whose letter of endorsement capped Prairie’s application to the Marshall committee, called her “thoughtful, astute, and very articulate.”

“Few students get as excited about economic theory and analysis as Michelle,” he wrote.

Prairie’s interest in development economics was born on a trip to Brazil with her church group when she was in high school.

She played soccer with 16-yearold Brazilians who had no shoes, she recalls. Riding on a bus from the airport through the outskirts of Sao Paulo, she was shocked by the stacked-up shanties on the mountainsides.

At UConn she found opportunities for study abroad in Sweden, where she observed the welfare state, and, through the campus Christian group, Reformed University Fellowship, in Peru, where she taught English as a volunteer and assisted a fledgling microfinance program.

“This is when I knew for certain that I wanted to become a development economist,” she wrote in her Marshall application. “I had found a way to serve the poor by using my passion for economic theory.”

She was reluctant at first to apply for a Marshall, questioning her chances among so many qualified applicants.

“In my mind, she had what it takes. She was a winner. She just needed to feel it,” says Jill R. Deans, director of the office of National Scholarships at UConn.

Deans arranged several mock interviews to prepare Michelle. Among the interviewers were history professor Christopher Clark, chair of the campus Marshall Scholarship nominating committee, and Sandra E. Shumway, adjunct professor in residence of Marine Sciences, who was herself a Marshall Scholar.

Prairie interns at the Travelers Insurance Company in the market research division. As a senior, she won the Travelers Insurance Company Scholarship, the top undergraduate award in the Economics Department.

Her mother, Ellen Prairie, works in the One-Card Office at Wilbur Cross, and her father, Robert Prairie, is a 1981 UConn alumnus in mechanical engineering technology.

“My whole four years at UConn, I could never have foreseen half of the things I’m doing now. I’m so appreciative to UConn for giving me these opportunities,” says Michelle.

She is UConn’s second student to win a prestigious Marshall scholarship, named for America’s first five-star Army general, George C. Marshall. In 1947, as President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, he proposed American economic assistance to post-war Europe.
UConn’s first Marshall Scholar, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, CLAS ’76, is now a professor of history at the University of Colorado. As an undergraduate at UConn she was advised by Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History Richard Brown.