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Sarah Allen Gershon returned to Arizona State University, this time not as a student defending her dissertation, but as an honored alumnus of the School of Politics and Global Studies.
“I’m super excited to be here,” Gershon shared. “The people within this department just gave me so much support and guidance when I was here and have continued to support me throughout the course of my career.”
Gershon, who graduated from ASU with a PhD in political science in 2008, is this year’s Distinguished Alumni Speaker for the School of Politics and Global Studies. Each year the school honors an outstanding alumnus for their accomplishments by inviting them back to ASU to speak with faculty and students.
An associate professor at Georgia State University, Gershon’s field of research is American political behavior, where she focuses on women and racial/ethnic minorities.
After double majoring in political science and history as an undergraduate from Washington State University, Gershon starting looking at graduate schools with the idea of pursuing a PhD. Initially she thought she would specialize in international relations but after taking a few American politics courses, a newfound passion arose.
“That was a better fit for me with the kind of questions I was interested in answering and the skill set that I had,” Gershon said. “I was lucky to be in such a big and diverse department where I had faculty who could supervise me.”
Gershon would go on to have two future mentors on her dissertation chairs: Patrick Kenney and Kim Fridkin, who are both foundation professors at ASU. Kenney, who is now the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was department chair at the time when Gershon would serve as his teaching assistant.
“He gave me a lot of great advice,” Gershon said. “(Kenney) really provided a lot of mentorship for me early in my graduate career even before he started supervising my research.”
Serving as a research assistant to be both Fridkin and Kenney, Gershon would assist on projects such as the presidential debate held on ASU’s Tempe campus in 2004. That was the first time she had seen an experiment conducted in real time. Gershon would co-author two of the papers that were written out of that data set.
For Gershon, it was an empowering experience.
“That, I think, really solidified my interest in the work that they did in the fields of political communication and American political behavior,” Gershon said. “They were leading all of us but I think they allow you to get your hands involved in the research. Get real world experience with it.”
Upon graduation, Gershon began teaching at Georgia State University. Having already taught a few classes at ASU, learning how to structure them and how to communicate with students, helped Gershon feel more prepared.
“That level of engagement as a graduate student was critically important in helping me do my best with this job and also gave me the confidence to feel like I can do it well,” Gershon said. “It impacted not only my career but affects the way I mentor my own graduate students.”
Although she was no longer a student at ASU, Gershon’s relationship with her mentors was as strong as ever. Kenney and Fridkin would continue to offer support and professional advice in the coming years. In 2016, Gershon was excited to be able to work with Fridkin again on a debate study funded by an NSF grant.
"Sarah and I are working together on exciting research exploring how people’s emotional reactions influence their understanding of political communication," Fridkin said. "It is extremely rewarding to have witnessed Sarah’s transformation from a first-year graduate student in my research methods seminar to a first-rate scholar with an impressive record in scholarship, teaching and administration."
While back in Tempe, Gershon gave a colloquium to faculty and students titled “Shared Identities: The Intersection of Race and Gender and Support for Political Candidates”. This project was a collaboration with three other political scientists and looks at how voters feel about candidates who share their racial, ethnic and gender identities.
Being back on campus to present her work was a surreal experience for Gershon.
“More than anything I’m grateful that I’m a part of this community and I’m grateful that I get to come back and see all of them. It’s a wonderful thing to be here.”