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Economics major awarded prestigious Marshall Scholarship

by Cindy Weiss - December 8, 2008

A senior economics major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is one of 40 new Marshall Scholars named on Dec. 1 by the British government.

Michelle Prairie, a Presidential Scholar from Vernon, 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 chosen for a Marshall this year. 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, Middlebury, and Yale.

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 at 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.

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.

Passion for economics
Prairie, who was valedictorian of her senior class at Rockville High School, entered UConn four years ago 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, and has interned for the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis and for Susan Randolph, an associate professor whose research focuses on development economics.

“That opportunity has accelerated me so much in economic understanding,” Prairie says.

Randolph invited Prairie to assist her in research funded by the Human Rights Institute’s economic rights project. She asked her to become familiar with a complex statistical analysis software package, the Statistical Package for Social Scientists. It can be intimidating, Randolph says, but Prairie “got the book from the library and got up and running very quickly.”

Economics professor Richard Langlois, Prairie’s adviser, says Prairie “is probably one of the very best students I’ve had in my quarter-century tenure as a faculty member.”

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-year-old Brazilians who had no shoes, she recalls. Riding on a bus from the airport through the outskirts of São Paulo, she was shocked by the stacked-up shanties on the mountainsides.

Michelle Prairie will spend two years studying development economics in the U.K. as a Marshall Scholar.
Michelle Prairie will spend two years studying development economics in the U.K. as a Marshall Scholar. Photo by Annie Peterson, CLAS ’09

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.”

Preparing for success
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 Deans, director of UConn’s Office of National Scholarships. Deans arranged several mock interviews to prepare Prairie. Among the interviewers were history professor Christopher Clark, chair of the campus Marshall Scholarship nominating committee, and Sandra Shumway, adjunct professor-in-residence of marine sciences, who was herself a Marshall Scholar.

During the actual interview with the Marshall committee in November, Prairie was asked, among other things, what she would do about General Motors if she were President Obama’s economic adviser.

“When I walked out, I felt good,” she says.

Prairie’s experiences at UConn include working for three years at the newsstand in Babbidge Library, where she read the Economist and national newspapers and exchanged ideas with faculty who dropped by.

She describes her study method as “studying in class – I raise my hand a lot.”

She also interns at the Travelers Insurance Co., in the market research division. As a senior, Prairie 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.

Deans already is scouting for candidates for next year’s national scholarship opportunities.

“We have all these amazing students. They don’t know how amazing they are,” she says.

“UConn is out there and it’s being recognized. To win a Marshall this year is confirmation that we’ve got these fantastic students. It’s very affirming.”

Prairie, meanwhile, has made BBC.com the start-up screen on her computer in preparation for her stay in the U.K.

“My whole four years at UConn, I could never have foreseen half of the things I’m doing now,” she says. “I’m so appreciative that UConn has given me these opportunities.”

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