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Senior Wins Prestigious Marshall Scholarship

American studies major Rhaina Cohen will study comparative social policy at Oxford

EVANSTON, Ill. --- As a third grader, Rhaina Cohen dressed herself up in a pants suit and made a presentation to her classmates about one of her heroines, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now a senior at Northwestern University, Cohen has been awarded a prestigious Marshall Scholarship that will take her to the University of Oxford to study comparative social policy.

“Gender equality and politics have been my passions for a long time,” says Cohen, an American studies major from East Brunswick, N.J. “At 14, I volunteered for Hillary’s presidential campaign and had the moxie to call voters in Pennsylvania and urge them to support her in the Democratic primary.” 

As a Northwestern student, Cohen became increasingly interested in political, social and policy issues. She sharpened her intellectual understanding by taking classes not only in political science and gender studies but also in history, literature, media, religious studies, theatre and art. She is working on an honors thesis about the military childcare system for which she will produce both a written thesis and an art installation.

“Rhaina has the rare ability of looking across fields of social and cultural life and integrating what she has learned to explore and interpret American culture,” says Robert A. Orsi, professor of religious studies and history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“She has a special curiosity about what American social policy looks like when viewed in comparison to the social policies of modern European nations,” Orsi adds. “She is a true international thinker in this regard.”

“One theme I became very aware of while studying at Northwestern is what I see as the pervasive myth of individualism,” Cohen says. “You built it, rags to riches, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. They are all American tropes. I’ve come to think the notion of individualism blinds us to the ways we are connected to each other and tears away at the responsibilities we have to one another.”

During her junior year, she developed an independent study course on American individualism.

Cohen says she never thought about family leave or flexible hours or universal childcare until she discovered that they were standard in most Western industrialized countries. She is frustrated by the conversation in the United States around work/life balance and whether women “can have it all.” “These issues are discussed as matters of personal choice when they should be viewed from a social policy perspective,” she says.

Cohen was involved in founding Northwestern’s Women’s Caucus, an organization designed to promote women’s leadership. After studying in Great Britain, she plans to work in broadcast news as a producer or correspondent reporting on social policy.

She hopes eventually to hold a leadership position that will allow her to influence not only which issues the media cover but also how they cover them. She also is interested in getting more women, people of color and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in media outlets to help with that change.

While an undergraduate, Cohen engaged in political and broadcast news internships. She worked on the campaign for Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior U.S. Senator from New York, and later as a constituent affairs intern in the senator’s New York office. “Gillibrand is a fierce advocate of women’s rights and women’s causes,” Cohen says. “I’m proud to have interned for her on two occasions.”

She also interned for CBS News and ABC News, eventually working as a production coordinator for “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” where she helped cover the Newtown, Conn. school shootings and the United Nations address by Malala Yousafzi, the 14-year-old Pakistani education activist who was nearly killed by the Taliban. She also conducted an interview with New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick.

Cohen currently is doing research for a political biography by former Washington Post reporter Peter Slevin (now a professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications) and for a book by feminist writer, journalist and Northwestern alumna Rebecca Traister. 

“For Traister’s upcoming book on the ways single women are making history and changing culture, I interviewed religious women in Utah, single mothers in the Bronx and highly educated women with no plans to marry,” Cohen says. “The experience of interviewing was almost a high and showed me how exciting it is to piece together an understanding of what’s going on in society.”

In addition to Cohen, Northwestern University alumnus Chelsea Glenn also was awarded a Marshall. It is the fourth time that Northwestern has claimed two Marshalls in a single year since the Office of Fellowships was created in 1998.

The Marshall Scholarships were established in 1953 as a British gesture of thanks to the people of the United States for assistance received after World War II under the Marshall Plan. Financed by the British Government, they provide an opportunity for American students who have demonstrated academic excellence and leadership potential to continue their studies for two years at any British university.

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