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For the first time in Penn’s history, a student has been awarded a George J. Mitchell Scholarship to study in Ireland.

Luckily, 2012 College graduate and scholarship recipient Meghan Hussey is no stranger to travel. Hussey has studied in China, Philadelphia, Tanzania and is now heading to Ireland.

“It’s always an adventure,” she said from Moshi, Tanzania, where she is currently working with the Mosaic Collaborative for Disabilities Policy and Practice. As she works on implementing new disabilities programming in Tanzania, she is also trying to learn Swahili.

“This is the first Mitchell [Scholarship] Penn has ever won,” Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships director Harriet Joseph said.

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The scholarship, which is awarded to 12 American students every year, will allow Hussey to pursue her academic interests at Trinity College in Ireland. According to political science professor Brendan O’Leary, who is Hussey’s mentor, it is just as prestigious as a Rhodes Scholarship — if not more so.

Hussey will be looking at what kind of services and resources are provided for people with disabilities in Ireland.

Her last adventure was a trip to China with a Fulbright grant, where she studied services for adolescents and adults with autism. While there, she conducted interviews in Chinese with families, teachers and community groups to learn about the services available for children with autism.

While abroad, though, meeting with families has been her favorite experience.

“Those are my happiest moments in any abroad experience,” she said. “When I meet families that are like mine and … we connect on that level.”

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Telling families about her own family and experience with disability in the United States has changed how she reflects on her experience.

“Parents who have faced a lot of prejudice said that it made them feel more comfortable and that hearing about everything we have in the [United States] made them want to work for their children to have the same,” she said. “That was incredibly humbling.”

All her experiences abroad have shaped her perspective on the way disabilities are seen in America.

“As difficult as it was for our family in terms of lack of understanding [here] … it’s not at the same level of social stigma many persons with disabilities and their families face around the world,” she said.

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Her interest in disability has a long past.

“Disability has always been something that has been a part of my life,” Hussey said, in part because she grew up with an autistic sister. Hussey began her work with disability at the age of 10 when she first started volunteering with the Special Olympics.

However, “I never considered it would be something I would do professionally,” she said. But while she was studying international relations and political science at Penn, Hussey began to see an overlap between her studies and her disabilities work.

“My service learning program took us on a trip to an autistic school,” she said, “and then my two worlds collided.”

She also began exploring her two passions in the classroom, taking a course with professor Benjamin Nathans called “Human Rights in History”.

“She was an absolutely terrific student,” Nathans said. “I think that one of the things that distinguished her [was that] she had not only a strong intellectual interest in the topic, but a kind of inner drive.”
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“This was a very potent combination for someone like Meghan,” he added. She had “a built-in connection to the subject, but also brought a lot of intellectual firepower to it.”

O’Leary, her advisor, was impressed by her work as his research assistant. “Meghan was always exceptionally bright and enthusiastic,” he said.

Even before she brought her passion into the classroom, Hussey got involved with disability work in her freshman year through the Riepe College House Mentor Program. As a mentor for at-risk children in West Philadelphia, Hussey worked with disabled children, in addition to students of all backgrounds.

Her successful path is something many of her professors are proud of.

“I’m just delighted at what Meghan has done since she graduated from Penn,” Nathans said. “It’s been an incredible breadth of exposure to different parts of the world — and in all these places, she has not only been learning and absorbing, but really giving back to the communities that she’s been working with — which I find really impressive.”

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