You are here: Home / News & Events / Outreach Archive / Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award

Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award

Award Description

In the fall of 2010, the Center for Democratic Deliberation was pleased to announce a new annual award for students who help to advance the CDD’s mission of promoting engaged citizenship and public deliberation.

Through the generosity of Gretchen A Birkle ('86), each year the Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award will recognize at least two students in the College of Liberal Arts—either graduate or undergraduate students—who have made significant contributions to public deliberation and debate by “speaking out” about important political or social issues, or by promoting more informed or productive public deliberation on the Penn State campus, in the State College community, or in the nation and world beyond.

Nominees for the Birkle Student Engagement Award must be undergraduate or graduate students currently enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts at Penn State University Park.  Additionally, nominees must in some way participate in programs or activities supported by the Center for Democratic Deliberation or one of its partners.



Nominations for the 2015-2016 Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award are closed.


2016 Birkle Award Winners

Jessica A. Kurr, Jeremy D. Johnson and Jordan Todd are being honored with the Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award for their work with the Penn State Debate Society. Jessica A. Kurr and Jeremy D. Johnson are both doctoral students in the Communication Arts and Sciences and are the co-directors of the Penn State Debate Society. Jordan Todd is an undergraduate student in Political Science and Sociology and the Vice President of Public Events for the Debate Society.

Jessica, Jeremy, and Jordan have worked together to organize semesterly public debates on topics as wide-ranging as paying student-athletes, fracking in Pennsylvania, and problems with THON. Jessica and Jeremy recently designed a new undergraduate course, CAS 315: Debate & Civic Life, that will not only teach students about the importance of debate and deliberation but also ask students to undertake debate and deliberation themselves. Jordan has been integral in organizing visits to Penn State by international debate teams. Last fall, for just one example, Jordan helped bring the National Rwanda Debate Team to Penn State for a public debate on the topic “Should the United States reduce its involvement in Africa?” As Professor J. Michael Hogan noted in his nomination, Jessica, Jeremy, and Jordan’s efforts have allowed the Penn State Debate Society to “become a real catalyst for public debate and deliberation about important issues facing the Penn State Community.”

 McDonald Birkle

Barry Bram, Special Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs (left), with Emily McDonald and CDD Director Debra Hawhee

(Photo: Jarid Waniger)

Emily McDonald is a senior majoring in Economics and minoring in Political Science. Emily is being honored with the Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award for her work as President of the University Park Undergraduate Association and The Pennsylvania Association of State-Related Students (PASS). One of Emily’s legacies as President of the Penn State student body will be her revival of PASS, an organization that joins student leaders from Penn State, Temple University, Lincoln University, and the University of Pittsburgh. This semester, Emily, in both her role as President and as representative to PASS, has focused her energies on Pennsylvania’s budget crisis, advocating for the Penn State student body by publishing letters, attending appropriation hearings, and meeting with state representatives in Harrisburg. Barry Bram, Special Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs, wrote in his nomination of Emily, “her years at Penn State have been spent working to address important issues facing students and the University. She has done so in a manner that has allowed her to work with other student leaders, faculty, staff, and the admiration to get things done—all while advocating on behalf of student interests and listening and taking into account the variety of perspectives that the members of the Penn State community have on a number of issues.”


Professor Michele Kennerly (left) with Nathin Larkin and CDD Director Debra Hawhee

(Photo: Jarid Waniger)

Nathan Larkin is a junior majoring in Economics and Communication Arts and Sciences and former intern for the Center for Democratic Deliberation. Nathan is being honored with the Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award for his work with Fossil Free PSU. As Executive Director and co-founder of Fossil Free PSU, Nathan organized Onward on Climate, a public demonstration held last fall on the steps of Old Main. At Onward on Climate over one hundred students from across campus and representatives of 32 different Penn State student organizations came together to encourage Penn State to divest the part of its endowment currently invested in fossil fuel companies. At the event, leaders of Fossil Free PSU as well as members of the student body had the opportunity to speak out about climate change and environmental degradation. In particular, Nathan encourages the Penn State community to understand how climate change and environmental crises intersect with social justice issues. For this reason, Nathan works to combine the efforts of Fossil Free PSU with the NAACP, the Black Caucus, the Latino Caucus, Women in Politics, and the Society for Indigenous knowledge. In her nomination of Nathan, Professor Michele Kennerly highlighted this effort when explaining that “Nathan values assembly, conversation and finding commonalities across animating principles.” 

2015 Birkle Award Winners

Birkle 2015 Winners - Kaitlyn Patia (left),  Lauren Lewis (center), and Abigail Kennedy (right)

2015 Birkle Award Winners Kaitlyn Patia (left), 
Lauren Lewis (center), and Abigail Kennedy (right)
(Photo credit: Jarid Waniger)

Abigail Kennedy is a sophomore majoring in English. She is being honored with this year’s Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award for co-authoring Madam President: Five Women Who Paved the Way with Dr. Nichola Gutgold and using that book as platform to raise awareness about gender equality. Abigail says discussing the book at public events allows her to “expand the realms of possibilities in the minds of girls and boys by informing them of incredible women who’ve run for the presidency.” Dr. Gutgold, who nominated her for the award, noted Abigail’s drive to find platforms to engage other individuals about the nature of women in politics, where Abigail uses an illustrative analogy to describe their message. “If striving for gender equality is like opening a series of difficult pickle jars, then opening the lid of the presidency is the stickiest for women,” Abigail explains, “However, Just knowing women have loosened the lid already by running changes public opinion, making the jar easier for future women to open.” The Center for Democratic Deliberation is proud to honor Abigail with the Birkle Award for raising awareness about gender inequality in politics and for loosening the jar for future activists


Lauren Lewis is a senior majoring in Print Journalism and minoring in International Studies, French and Francophone Studies, and Communication Arts & Sciences. She is being honored with this year’s Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award for her leadership in “We Are … Taking a Stand,” a group formed in aftermath of the Kappa Delta Rho scandal, and for raising awareness about sexual assault and violence at Penn State. Beginning with a peaceful rally outside Old Main, Lauren’s efforts have continued to influence not only the State College community but also the state as well. Lisa Hogan, who Lauren assisted teaching in a Women’s Studies class, Lauren embodied “the spirit of the great female activist [she] had studied in class” by arranging the protest and subsequent rallies and her “efforts reflect the values and traditions associated with democratic deliberation and serve as a model for other students.” The Center for Democratic Deliberation is proud to honor Lauren with the Birkle Award for speaking out about such a pervasive issue. She has pledged to continue “to work with leaders and representatives from the campus and local community to ensure that we can STAND as a united front.”


Kaitlyn Patia is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences and a student affiliate with the CDD. She is being honored with this year’s Nancy and Joseph Birkle Student Engagement Award for organizing Deliberation Nation, a series of fifty student‐led public deliberations held throughout State College over a two‐week period. According to Jessica O’Hara, the Acting Director of Rhetoric and Civic Life, who nominated Kaitlyn for the Birkle award, “She has been an enthusiastic supporter of our outreach and instructional efforts to foster deliberative dialogue.” Kaitlyn also had students participate in the Centre County Public Issues Forum, as well as helping one of her students publish an op-ed in the Centre Daily Times. The Center for Democratic Deliberation is proud to honor Kaitlyn with the Birkle Award for encouraging her students to tackle tough issues, as she wrote, “it was heartening to hear one of them say, to a chorus of agreement, that without the space of this class to discuss issues such as racism or rape culture, they likely wouldn’t even notice such happenings in the world.”


2014 Birkle Award Winners

2014 Birkle Award Winners Briana Adams (left), Patrick Boynton (center),  Suzanne Zakaria (right), and CDD Affiliate Debra Hawhee

2014 Birkle Award Winners Briana Adams (left), Patrick Boynton (center), 
Suzanne Zakaria (right), and CDD Affiliate Debra Hawhee
(Photo credit: Adam Haley)

Briana Adams is a sophomore majoring in Communication Arts and Sciences. She was honored with the 2014 Birkle Award for creating the Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest, which asked Penn State students to “explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing.” According to Catherine Wanner, the Barry Director of the Paterno Fellows Program, who nominated Briana for the Birkle award, “The Essay Contest has empowered other students to think that they too can make a difference not only in their own college experience, but in the overall culture of student life at Penn State.” Briana organized a student committee, and together they wrote six provocative essay prompts to which submitters responded. In its inaugural year, the essay contest drew more than thirty entries. The three top winning essays and three honorable mentions are featured on the Penn State Liberal Arts Voices Website, along with a podcast about the contest. The Center for Democratic Deliberation is proud to honor Briana with the Birkle Award for organizing what her nominator has aptly described as a “superb example of a student spearheading a forum where peers are encouraged to be engaged citizens of Penn State and of the world.”


Patrick Boynton and Suzanne Zakaria are seniors majoring in International Politics. They were honored with the 2014 Birkle Award for their leadership of State of State, both an organization and an event designed to evaluate, deliberate, and improve the state of the Penn State University community. Since proposing the idea for State of State a couple of years ago, Patrick and Suzanne have recruited a thirty-five student organizing committee, secured more than $40,000 in funding from all over campus, and planned—with the help of their organizing committee—the inaugural conference, which was held on Sunday, March 30, 2014. This conference drew more than 300 students, faculty, and community members, who learned about and deliberated Penn State issues such as the massive scale of THON, race relations on campus, funding higher education, etc. The event included a series of informative talks, interspersed with energetic small group discussions, which were led by student facilitators. According to their nominator Michael Berkman, Professor of Political Science, Patrick and Suzanne “designed the day to facilitate meaningful discussion and interaction… and they have created the infrastructure for the program to continue past their graduation.” The Center for Democratic Deliberation agrees with Dr. Berkman’s sentiments, and is pleased to honor Patrick and Suzanne with the Birkle Award.

2013 Birkle Award Winners

    2013 Birkle Award Winners Janeetra Johnson (right), Lili Hadsell (center), and Sean Dooling (left), pictured here with CDD Director J. Michael Hogan

    2013 Birkle Award Winners Janeetra Johnson (right), Lili Hadsell (center), and Sean Dooling (left),
    pictured here with CDD Director J. Michael Hogan.

    Janeetra Johnson is an undergraduate student majoring in Women’s Studies. She is being honored with this year’s Birkle Student Engagement Award for her commitment to racial, gender, and economic equality in her hometown of Philadelphia and at Penn State University. In Philadelphia, Janeetra worked with Judge Marjorie Rendell and the National Constitution Center, co-founding an organization called “Star Force” that educated minority children from underprivileged backgrounds on the importance of civic education. At Penn State, she has allied with two Women’s Studies groups on campus, Triota and Coalition, to speak out against sexual violence. Additionally, she recently founded an organization, Reaching for Greatness, that mentors young women in the community. Dr. Gabeeba Baderoon, Janeetra’s nominator, wrote that Janeetra’s “visionary, sustained and deeply ethical engagement” in her communities is a wonderful example of “empathetic, thoughtful, and effective public engagement.” The Center for Democratic Deliberation agrees with Dr. Baderoon’s sentiments, and we are pleased to honor Janeetra with the Birkle Award.


    Lili Hadsell is an undergraduate majoring in Women’s Studies and English. She is being honored with this year’s Birkle Student Engagement Award for her role as coordinator of Penn State’s chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), an on-campus group that advocates for the rights of workers who produce Penn State’s collegiate apparel. As she explains, such advocacy is difficult because “brands purposely try to distance consumers from the labor that goes into making the products that we buy.”As her nominator, Dr. Mark Anner, notes, Lili was so determined to bridge that distance that she travelled to Central America in the spring of 2012 to witness firsthand the working conditions of local factories. She was instrumental in pointing out to Penn State administration the worker rights abuses committed by Russell Athletic, a maker of Penn State apparel, in Honduras. As Anner explains, “The Penn State administration listened to USAS’s concerns and terminated its contract with the company in order to pressure it to improve conditions. As a result, thousands of workers in Honduras are now working under better conditions.” For these efforts – in addition to her work promoting Alta Gracia, a factory in the Dominican Republic that produces Penn State clothing where workers receive wages that are triple others in the industry and have a strong union to represent their interests – the Center for Democratic Deliberation will award Lili the Birkle.


    Sean Dooling is an undergraduate student majoring in French and Biological Anthropology. He is being honored with this year’s Birkle Student Engagement Award for his key leadership role in Pinwheels for Prevention, an awareness- and fund-raising campaign in support of Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania. A member of the Paterno Fellows Student Advisory Board, Sean helped recruit students, coordinate events with Penn State faculty and staff, organize a Facebook presence, and write blogs for the Paterno Fellows blog site that resulted in a stunning display of visual rhetoric.  As nominator Dr. Jack Selzer described the scene in April 2012, “A garden of over 1500 pinwheels spun in the breezes over the Sparks Building lawn, standing in for the hope of a carefree childhood for all children.” Sean, along with other students and supportive faculty and staff, “held a kind of informational vigil over their garden: as passersby wandered by, drawn by the amazing visual display, their questions could be answered by Sean and his colleagues.” The event was picked up in various local media and netted over $5000 for Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania. Sean has continued his advocacy this year in the Pinwheels for Prevention program, as well. The Center for Democratic Deliberation is proud to honor Sean with the Birkle Award for his commitment, which he calls “a reminder of the innocence of children and of the impact a community can make when working together.”


    2012 Birkle Award Winners

    2012 Birkle Award winner Jessica SeverJessica Sever is an undergraduate student in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences. She is being honored with this year’s Birkle Student Engagement Award for her “key role in conceiving of, and then delivering on, the idea of a prayer vigil for victims of sexual assault in the wake of the Sandusky crisis.” Jessica and her friend Kyle Harris used their training in crisis management and their expertise in social media to, in her own words, “open an outlet for the members of a frustrated Penn State community to express themselves in a positive manner.” Her nominator, Dr. Stephen Browne, described the results of her efforts with some amazement that “in a matter of only a few days” Jessica and Kyle were able to organize “a mass rally here at Penn State covered by local, state, and national media.” Jessica’s November 11, 2011 candlelight vigil drew more than 10,000 participants to the steps of Old Main and was covered by CNN, ESPN, and, in detail, by the local Pennsylvania media. Heeding Dr. Browne’s assessment that, “as one of the very few good things to come from the scandal, surely this must rank among the most notable,” the Center for Democratic Deliberation is proud to honor Jessica with the Birkle.


    Birkle 2012 - TarynTaryn Noll is an undergraduate student in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences. She is also the founder of The Power of Pink, a Penn State student organization that advocates breast cancer awareness and the reason she will be honored this year with the Birkle Student Engagement Award. Taryn’s nominator, Dr. Jack Selzer, described the impressive breadth of work that The Power of Pink has done to raise breast cancer awareness: Taryn “has managed to mobilize a substantial group of like-minded students who now do all sorts of things to raise awareness of breast cancer detection practices and treatment options, and she and her fellow students have raised money and created events, all in order to communicate effectively with the public about this important matter of health communication.” Among the accomplishment that Taryn’s group can boast are a regular 5K race, the latest installment of which drew more than four hundred runners, raising substantial funds for breast cancer awareness campaigns in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and the innovative creation of a “Health Promoter” position in the organization who is tasked with sending out regular reminders to be proactive to other student organizations including instructions for regular self breast exams. Noting the absence of a breast cancer awareness student organization at Penn State before she founded The Power of Pink, Taryn explained that, “I am an advocate for breast cancer awareness because when young women are proactive about the disease, they can overcome it. Breast cancer research has made enormous strides over the past two decades and now, early detection of stage I breast cancer means that a woman has 93% chance of surviving.” For her tireless advocacy and impressive capacity to get her fellow students engaged in an issue of great civic importance, the Center for Democratic Deliberation will award Taryn the Birkle.


    2012 Birkle award winners Heather Adams and Michael J. FarisHeather Adams and Michael J. Faris are the two graduate recipients of the Birkle Student Engagement Award this year. They are both Ph.D. students in the Department of English. Heather Adams and Michael J. Faris are being honored for their timely leadership in facilitating thoughtful deliberation over the Jerry Sandusky scandal. After approaching professor Debra Hawhee with their interest in finding some way to encourage meaningful and respectful deliberation over the scandal, Michael and Heather joined together with graduate student Mark Hlavacik (one of last year’s recipients of the Birkle) and professors Hawhee and Jeremy Engels to rapidly created a new webpage. Providing guidelines for respectful deliberation and collection of responsible reporting and commentary on the scandal, this new webpage, “Deliberation in the Midst of Crisis,” became an important instructional resource for professors, at both Penn State and other universities, who chose to address the scandal in their classrooms. Dr. Hawhee noted in her nomination of Heather and Michael that, “an online deliberation resource designed to help guide deliberation in established groups (inside and outside of classrooms)—would not have been possible without Heather and Michael’s leadership and initiative. They were the galvanizing force behind our group.” Not only was “Deliberation in the Midst of Crisis” put into practice by professors at University Park, but it was also used to help facilitate classroom discussions at many of the Commonwealth Campuses, the University of Richmond, the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University, and others. Dr. Hawhee’s nomination noted that “Deliberation in the Midst of Crisis was successful by almost any measure.” The Center for Democratic Deliberation agrees and has decided to reward Heather and Michael’s efforts with the Birkle.

    2011 Birkle Award Winners

    Ruth Canagarajah has excelled throughout her undergraduate career at Penn State, both inside the classroom--as a double major in International Politics and Sociology with a minor in Linguistics--and outside of it as a researcher and volunteer.  Ruth has served as a research intern for the International Center for the Study on Terrorism, as a researcher on hydroelectric dams in Ghana, and as a volunteer at a refugee camp in Ghana and the Women's Resource Center in State College.  Ruth was also chosen as one of fifty students to participate in a seminar on sustainable development in Ghana as part of the United Nations University.  However, one of the main reasons Ruth was selected for the award is the program she created entitled "Paalam."  Ruth developed this program to help youth in post-war Sri Lanka to work through their experiences living in a war-torn country by composing plays about those experiences.  The winning plays are then performed in the United States to raise awareness about conflict abroad and the lives that are changed forever by war.


    Geoff Halberstadt, an undergraduate senior majoring in Political Science and History, has demonstrated a commitment to public engagement and constructive discourse throughout his academic career.  He has focused his attention on solving two major problems at Penn State: dangerous drinking practices and a lack of personal integrity among students.  In his efforts to promote more healthy forms of social life, Geoff has represented the College of Liberal Arts as a student senator to the University Faculty Senate and served as President of the Liberal Arts Undergraduate Council.  Most notably, in the fall of 2010, along with Associate Dean Christopher Long, Geoff began an online conversation about dangerous drinking practices.  That online forum brings this important conversation to students, faculty, and community members.  While engaging in this online dialogue, Geoff has also authored an Honor Code for the College of Liberal Arts, which is currently in the process of being adopted.  This Honor Code is built on the fundamental assumption that, as he puts it, "Students should strive to practice personal integrity in every facet of their college life."


    Mark Hlavacik and Kristin Mathe, graduate students in the Communication Arts and Sciences department at Penn State received a Birkle award together, for their dedication to reviving intercollegiate debate at Penn State.  Both Mark and Kristin serve as mentors and coaches for the Penn State Debate Society, devoting countless hours to meeting with the undergraduate students involved in the Society, holding weekly meetings and practices, planning and rehearsing for public debates, and reaching out to debate teams from other universities to plan collaborative events.  Though Penn State has a long and rich history of intercollegiate debate, the program had remained dormant for a number of years until a group of undergraduate students re-formed the Penn State Debate Society in the fall of 2009.  Mark and Kristin have worked tirelessly and without compensation to promote debate at Penn State, and without their efforts, this renewed debate program could neither have developed nor stabilized as it has in the past two years.  Under Mark and Kristin's direction, the new Debate Society has embraced a style of debate which promotes substantive discussion over competition, and one that actively involves audiences from the campus and the larger community.


    Birkle Award 2011

    Geoff Halberstadt and Ruth Canagarajah
    2011 Birkle Award Winners