URI student awarded Madison Fellowship

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KINGSTON, R.I. — May 31, 2006 — Marissa Owens earned a degree in history this month and was also awarded the prestigious James Madison Graduate Fellowship, which supports graduate study of American history by aspiring secondary school teachers. Owens is one of only 50 James Madison Fellows selected in competition with applicants from all 50 states and territories.

The fellowship, named after the nation’s fourth president, will pay Owens’ full tuition (about $16,000) to Union University in Schenectady, N.Y., which offers an intensive year-round master of arts in teaching and social studies.

The 22-year-old historian from Albany, N.Y. cemented her desire to teach when she was in high school, thanks to a career exploration program her school offered to seniors. The program gave Owens a chance to teach various grades. She loved it.

She plans to teach secondary schools because she feels adolescents are at a critical time in their lives. “I would like to inspire students to stay in school and reach beyond their comfort zones,” she says noting that she had been the student of teachers who seemed apathetic in their jobs and others for whom teaching was a passion. She plans to become one of the latter. “I have seen what a difference a passionate teacher can make on a young adult’s life,” she says.

In addition to maintaining an “A” average at URI, Owens spent 20 hours a week as a member of the women’s varsity rowing team. She sees the correlation among the ability to excel on the water and teaching.

“Teaching is a profession in which you can only be successful with effective cooperation with both your students and fellow teachers. Likewise, a boat will not go fast if there is no dedication to such a goal as an entire group,” says Owens.

History is not memorized dates, places, and events. Instead it is alive and well and connected to the present and the future, according to Owens. “I think that far too many students go through the educational system without ever wondering why such information is useful to them,” says Owens who, inspired by her history professors at URI, chose history as a major.

Pulling from her own experiences as a rower, she says she was affected by Title IX, federal legislation that required equal opportunity for women in higher education, including athletics. Thirty years ago, the situation was much different.

An advocate of applied learning, which takes information out of the context of textbooks and puts it into the real world, Owens suggests that social studies students studying public policy could possibly lobby their state representatives for a cause. Service learning projects also help students make the connection between their class work and social policies. If, for example, a class was learning about food stamps and programs to help the hungry, the class could volunteer at a soup kitchen or food bank.

When choosing a college, Owens visited URI with her mother following a visit to a snow-laden college in Buffalo, N.Y. Kingston’s sunny weather combined with its Honors Program convinced both women URI was the best choice.

Owens, who maintained a stellar academic record, took a semester off when her mother died in 2003. Keenly aware of her mother’s confidence in her ability, the URI alumna says she gave herself an extra push to succeed. “I did it for her,” she says softly.

URI News Bureau Photo by Michael Salerno Photography.