Alumna’s Global Mission: Better Schools for Girls

Alumni Sally Nuamah standing inside an empty auditorium

From working with young people in Ghana’s classrooms to reforming American schools, Sally A. Nuamah, BA ’11, is a fierce advocate for helping girls obtain equal education around the world. Now she’s fighting for a stronger educational foundation.

When Sally A. Nuamah, BA ’11, first traveled to Ghana to study abroad during her sophomore year at Columbian College, the political science major expected to find herself in a completely different world. The child of Ghanaian immigrants, Nuamah grew up in inner-city Chicago, where her single mother stood out for her accent and her West African cooking. Nuamah, however, identified more with her working class African American neighborhood than her mother’s native country.

But from the moment she arrived in Ghana, Nuamah was surprised not by the differences she encountered, but by the similarities. “I saw girls who looked like me,” she said. They were youthful and vibrant—and struggling with challenges like poverty and barriers to education. In Chicago, Nuamah watched friends drop out of school. Her own mother had been accepted to a university in Ghana, but couldn’t afford the tuition. Now, Nuamah was hearing the same lament from the girls around her.

“The constraints placed on disadvantaged youth—especially girls of color—look very similar, whether you’re in urban Chicago or in Accra,” Nuamah said. “If my parents hadn’t migrated to the United States, then I wouldn’t have gone to GW and gotten this excellent education. I would have been just like these girls, just like my mother, trying to find a way to go to school every day.”

Today, Nuamah is an accomplished author, youth education advocate and professor at the Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy. She’s a Forbes Magazine “30 under 30” honoree, a 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellow, a former member of the GW Board of Trustees and a recipient of the university’s Recent Alumni Achievement Award. While still a student at GW, she began filming what would become her award-winning documentary HerStory, which follows three Ghanaian girls pursuing their education dreams. The film inspired her to launch the TWII Foundation, awarding college scholarships to low-income girls in Ghana. Her book How Girls Achieve (Harvard University Press, 2019) looks at how schools from Africa to the United States are failing young girls, and offers blueprints for reforming them.

“Sally is quite unique in her ability to connect what we do in the classroom with the real world,” said Associate Professor of Political Science Steven Balla. “She made [her coursework] relevant to her interests globally in thinking about girls’ education and why they succeed. It’s been rewarding to follow her career as she has gone on to accomplish so many incredible things as a young professional.”

Rejecting Labels

Nuamah’s mother encouraged her to become the first in the family to attend college, even as she faced some of the same obstacles as the Ghanaian girls she now assists. Although she earned a scholarship to GW, Nuamah initially felt out of place on campus. She credits faculty members like Balla, Professor of English Marshall Alcorn and the late Professor of English and American Studies James Miller with helping her realize that she deserved to be there. “My GW professors encouraged me to push against the labels that society had placed on me,” Nuamah said. “They showed me that just because I fit the statistical categorizations of disadvantaged, it didn’t mean I couldn’t see myself as brave and smart.”

Driving Nuamah’s advocacy work is her keen understanding of how a strong educational foundation can have a positive impact on every facet of daily life—from raising healthier families and building stronger communities to creating economic opportunities. In Ghana, she observed how girls who attended school were less likely to contract AIDS, more likely to contribute to their country’s overall development and, if they become mothers, more likely to immunize their children and invest in their education.

“My GW professors encouraged me to push against the labels that society had placed on me. They showed me that just because I fit the statistical categorizations of disadvantaged, it didn’t mean I couldn’t see myself as brave and smart.”
— Sally A. Nuamah

But merely opening the school doors for young women is only part of the battle, she said. The harder fight is reforming the institutions themselves. “Schools weren’t built with girls in mind,” said Nuamah, noting that the challenges schoolgirls face resulting from sexual abuse or unequal access to materials and opportunities go largely unaddressed. In the United States, one in seven schoolgirls report being absent because they feel unsafe in school. And in Ghana, 26 percent of schoolgirls say they have experienced sexual violence.

Nuamah advocates for the creation of she calls “feminist schools,” deliberately designed to help girls thrive while providing safe, equitable spaces. “Achievement shouldn’t just be about academic success. It should be about the ability to attain academic success in a school where girls don’t have to bear a different set of costs than others,” she said.

From her first visits to Ghana, Nuamah was inspired by the young women she met who committed to their education despite the hardships they faced. “From a statistical standpoint, it was unlikely that these girls would achieve the outcomes they had in mind—but they all had a strong sense that they could,” she said. Through her foundation, she has discovered that their confidence was not misguided. Most of the inaugural scholarship class went on to college. Some are currently pursuing graduate degrees in both Ghana and the U.S., four are in leadership positions at Ghanaian banks and one is the principal accountant for Ghana’s education services.

“It’s GW that made me feel like I would be able to help others,” Nuamah said. “It’s the spirit that I got from GW that drives me to continue to do this work; it’s what keeps pushing me.”

Main photo: Sally A. Nuamah, BA ’11, is an author, youth education advocate and professor.

A Century of Suffrage

A group of suffragists standing in front of the US Capitol

As the 19th Amendment celebrates its 100th anniversary, political science’s Corrine McConnaughy examines the history of the suffrage movement and the legacy of the women’s voting rights revolution that continues to resonate a century later.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which barred sex-based discrimination in voting rights, we spoke to Associate Professor of Political Science Corrine McConnaughy, an expert on gender in American politics and the author of The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment (Cambridge University Press, 2015). McConnaughy discussed the history of the suffrage movement, the myths behind the 19th Amendment and how the lessons of the voting rights landmark continue to impact lives a century later.

Q: Take us back to 1920 and set the historical stage for the 19th Amendment. What did the political landscape look like for women’s suffrage?

A: A lot of people don’t realize that well before the 19th Amendment, there were plenty of American women who already had the right to vote. The 19th Amendment did not grant women the right to vote. It prohibited the states from using sex as a disqualifier in who had the right to vote. In 1890, Wyoming was the first state to come into the union with the right to vote for women. In 1893, Colorado adopted woman suffrage into its existing state constitution. Then woman suffrage marched west to east to large, established states like Illinois. And an even larger number of states gave women limited voting rights. They couldn’t necessarily vote for the highest offices, but they voted on school- and tax-issues and municipal elections, which, in that era, was not a small thing.

Q: So women had a voice in American politics even before they had a vote?

Associate Professor of Political Science Corrine McConnaughy
Associate Professor of Political Science Corrine McConnaughy

A: Women were doing politics since before the founding of the country. Women figured out how to influence politics while they were still mostly excluded from electoral politics; they had a voice in how their communities made decisions, how resources were used, how public goods were provided and on and on. In the 1800s, you would find women affecting politics through literary societies and sewing societies. For example, a women’s sewing society might raise the funds to buy the land for a town cemetery. Women couldn’t enter the political world as voters, but, at that time, we saw women engaged in organized, collective, interest group politics.

Q: You wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on the fight for voting rights titled “Forget Susan B. Anthony.” What did you mean?

A: Obviously I’m not saying Susan B. Anthony wasn’t crucially important for the suffrage cause. But a singular focus on any political figure associated with the movement leaves out big pieces of the puzzle. Women on the ground in the states were plugged into political spheres. They were making alignments with other movements, who discovered how to make politicians responsive. We get to the 19th Amendment through their practices of coalition politics between the suffrage movement and important constituencies of existing male voters, like farmers’ organizations and labor unions. This is not to discount the amazing work that suffragists did. These women were political forces to be reckoned with. But part of their skill was coalition building with groups that already had political power and could be brought over to the side of woman suffrage.

“The real lesson of the 19th Amendment is the story of regular citizens’ engagement in the political system . . . . It was the story of a big change in what American democracy looked like because of massive involvement of ordinary people.”
— Corrine McConnaughy

Q: What changes in 1920 when the 19th Amendment is ratified?

A: Well, first let’s talk about what doesn’t change. The federal amendment says that the right to vote can’t be abridged or denied on the basis of sex. But there are plenty of women who were still left out because states used racial qualifications and literacy qualifications and even poll taxes to prevent women from voting. Native American women were left out. Most black women were left out. So for many women, nothing changed. But for other women, the amendment gave them a formal voice and allowed them to be fully-integrated into politics. In some sense, they had a new identity as fully-included citizens.

Q: And do women then have an immediate electoral impact?

Book Cover: the Woman Suffrage Movement in America by Corrine McConnaughy

A: It’s a mistake—then as now—to look at women as a single monolithic voting bloc. With the 19th Amendment, women come into the electorate but without loyalty as a group to a particular party. Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party ticket was the first nationally viable one to put woman suffrage on their agenda. But by 1916, all of the national parties had adapted in one way or another to the inclusion of women. In some reform movements—the temperance movement or abolition, for example—women organized explicitly as women, but that doesn’t mean women, generally, were committed to those issues. Women don’t do politics united by their womanhood. Flip that idea on its head: Do we think that men make voting decisions based on unified manhood? For some voters—men or women—gender identity may be a salient voting issue, but not for everyone.

Q: When we celebrate the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, what should we actually be celebrating?

A: The real lesson of the 19th Amendment, what we are really celebrating, is the story of regular citizens’ engagement in the political system. This was a story of real grassroots politics. It was the story of a big change in what American democracy looked like because of massive involvement of ordinary people in making it so.

Main photo: Suffragettes at the U.S. Capitol, 1914 (Photo Courtesy Library of Congress)

Can a Computer Code Catch Serial Killers?

graphic of a magnifying glass over a thumbprint on a binary code background

Statistics alumnus Thomas Hargrove created a computer algorithm to track serial killers. His one-of-a-kind data analysis platform is bringing criminals to justice—and giving peace of mind to families.

Thomas Hargrove, Grad Cert ’07, hunts serial killers. He’s tracked some of the most vicious murderers at large today, analyzing their crimes to predict when and where they might strike next.

But the statistics alumnus isn’t a detective. He’s a former journalist and an expert at computer coding. Using an algorithm of his own invention, Hargrove taps a few keys on his laptop and casts a web of data to ensnare criminals.

Hargrove is the founder of the Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit that collects and interprets statistics on unsolved homicides nationwide. His algorithm identifies clusters of murders that fit the patterns and profiles of serial killings. Working with law enforcement, he’s aided in the arrest of, among others, a serial strangler who killed 15 women in Gary, Indiana. Earlier this year, his computer algorithm identified similarities between the deaths of more than 50 women in Chicago—and led to the arrest of a murder suspect.

“The data shows these kind of killings are much, much more common than most of us think,” he said. “We have to make it easier to identify these crimes by statistical factors—when they occur, where they occur, what are the patterns. History tells us that if you don’t catch serial killers, they won’t stop on their own.”

“We have to make it easier to identify these crimes by statistical factors—when they occur, where they occur, what are the patterns. History tells us that if you don’t catch serial killers, they won’t stop on their own.”
— Thomas Hargrove

Haunting Statistics

Perhaps no one outside of law enforcement knows more about serial killers than Hargrove. For years, he has collected records of murders—mostly from FBI reports—and crunched the numbers into a searchable statistical database. The Murder Accountability Project, whose board includes journalists, police, forensic psychiatrists and criminologists, has amassed “without a doubt the world’s most complete accounting of murder in the United States,” Hargrove said, with a catalogue of nearly one million killings since 1976.

There are 17,000 murders in the United States each year, according to U.S. Department of Justice figures. About two-thirds of them are solved. States are supposed to report murder statistics to the Justice Department, but some file inaccurate data or fail to report at all. (Hargrove has sued states to obtain their records and the FBI for statistics on Indian reservation murders.) Hargrove’s algorithm searches crime archives for killings that are related by factors such as method, location, time of day and the victim’s sex. “There are millions and millions of combinations of research. No human being could do every search,” he said. “The algorithm runs those millions of combinations, looking for a pattern that otherwise wouldn’t be detected.”

While a reporter for the Washington, D.C., office of the Scripps Howard news service, Hargrove used crime data and computer coding for an investigation into prostitution. “I began to wonder if it was possible to teach a computer to spot serial [killing] victims,” he said. A self-described “computer geek,” Hargrove knew he needed to upgrade his coding skills for such a massive project. As a statistics student at GW, he threw himself into computer modeling, developing intricate algorithms including one that predicted the outcome of one million theoretical coin flips. “I’m using those same skillsets right now to identify serial murderers,” he said.

Thomas Hargrove used the computer modeling skills he learned at GW to create the Murder Accountability Project.

In 2010, while Hargrove was still a reporter, his algorithm determined that 15 unsolved strangulations in Gary, Indiana, were likely committed by the same person. Working off Hargrove’s data, police arrested a suspect who confessed to killing women for decades. He led them to abandoned locations where the bodies of six previously unknown victims were recovered.

Hargrove left journalism in 2015 to focus full time on tracking serial killers. With the Murder Accountability Project, he’s made his algorithm and database accessible to both law enforcement and the general public through the nonprofit’s website. “We’ve created an open source portal so anyone with a computer can search the data,” he said.

In Chicago, the algorithm alerted Hargrove’s team to a pattern of murders among women on the city’s South and West Sides. More than 75 percent of the killings—51 women, many of them sex workers—were unsolved, an alarmingly high rate. And 94 percent of the victims were found outdoors—alleyways, abandoned buildings, deserted lots. That’s another statistical anomaly. As Hargrove puts it, “Murder tends to be an indoor sport.” Hargrove alerted both the Chicago police and the FBI to the possibility that they may be tracking a serial killer. The police arrested a suspect in one of the killings and are investigating him for two other homicides

Detectives are among the primary users of Hargrove’s algorithm. His nonprofit frequently fields law enforcement requests for information on unsolved crimes. Hargrove himself holds analytics workshops for police. “It’s a new tool for their tool kit,” he said. By teaching police how to access the national crime database, Hargrove hopes to solve what he calls “linkage bias”—detectives working in siloes with little sharing of information across states, cities or even within the same departments. “When someone is murdered, a detective is assigned to the case. When someone else is murdered, another detective is assigned. If there are commonalities between the two cases, they aren’t often discovered unless the two detectives have a conversation over the watercooler,” he said.

It’s also common, Hargrove said, for parents to contact him seeking information about a loved one’s unsolved murder. Hargrove walks them through the database, showing them how their case has progressed through the legal system and teaching them how to analyze the statistics. “There are an awful lot of families that never get closure,” he said. “We want every American to be able to call up the data in their town. Maybe it will give them peace of mind. Or maybe, if they don’t like what they see, they’ll pick up the phone and call their mayor. Hopefully, we can turn these numbers into a political force—and put these killers behind bars.”

Cisneros Inspires New Generation of Student Leaders

Philanthropist and U.S. Congressman Gil Cisneros, BA ’94, speaking at an event celebrating the GW Cisneros scholars

Philanthropist and U.S. Congressman Gil Cisneros, BA ’94, was a first-generation college student. Now, by promoting leadership and academic opportunities for Latino youth, he’s helping young people write their own education success stories. ​​​​​​​

When philanthropist and U.S. Congressman Gil Cisneros, BA ’94, celebrated the GW Cisneros Scholars at a Foggy Bottom event in March, he called on each of the students within the leadership development program to use their education as a springboard for uplifting others in their communities through service and support.

“It’s about helping others. . . . When you do, you’re making your community, the country and the world a better place,” said Cisneros, who endowed with his wife, Jacki, the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute in 2015 to be the model in higher education for mentorship, leadership development and academic research that elevates Latino voices. “For me, it’s all about service and giving back . . . and hopefully making a difference in people’s lives.”

As Cisneros Scholars, dozens of undergraduates—most of whom, like Cisneros himself, are first-generation college students—are preparing to follow in his footsteps. The program is helping them hone their leaderships skills to make their marks in their communities and the world at large. As of fall 2020,  there were 43 undergraduate students attending GW as Cisneros Scholars. They come from 17 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Each were selected based on academic achievement and a demonstrated commitment to service and leadership in the Latino community.

“My goal as a Cisneros scholar was to succeed academically and take advantage of all the resources that the institute has to offer me,” said Madeline Aguirre, a senior majoring in economics and international affairs. “I hope to set the path for future Latino students who come to GW so that they can also be successful.”

Through various outlets, Cisneros Scholars are thriving in a supportive academic environment that celebrates their diversity and contributions to the GW community. In addition to receiving financial assistance, scholars participate in curriculum-based leadership training and community service activities throughout their undergraduate years. The institute also provides social and academic support, and—through its affiliate faculty and research fellows—exposes students to mentors and career coaches, as well as internship and networking opportunities.

“Education changed my life. It gave me opportunities I didn’t know were out there.”
— Gil Cisneros

“My wife and I really wanted to create an opportunity,” Cisneros told the students at the March event. “But the institute is only as successful as you’re going to be. You are the ones who are making this happen, you are the ones who are going out and doing the work academically. You are the ones who are supporting each other, making sure you are getting through your classes. You are the ones who are uplifting and mentoring each other.” 

In addition to the Cisneros Scholars, the institute supports Caminos al Futuro, a fully funded, pre-college and residential summer program that immerses rising high school seniors in the social, economic and political transformations affecting the Hispanic/Latino community. Cisneros Scholars often participate in the Caminos program, assisting as summer residential advisors and mentors.

“We are particularly proud of what our scholars are achieving and the diversity they bring to GW,” said Cisneros Institute Executive Director Elizabeth Vaquera. “All of our fourth-year students have retained high GPAs and have either graduated early this past fall or are scheduled to graduate this spring—that’s a 100 percent retention rate. During their time here, some have conducted graduate-level work and assisted professors on funded research projects. They leave the institute ready to thrive in graduate school or launch their professional careers.”

In addition to student programming, the Cisneros Institute produces research that offers policy solutions to issues facing the Latino community. These efforts include a project supported by the National Science Foundation to explore the emotional wellbeing of Latino undocumented young adults, and an initiative supported by the National Institutes of Health and GW’s Cross-Disciplinary Research Fund to examine the effects of current news and immigration policy changes on Latino families.

“The Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute has built a supportive environment for students that values their contributions and recognizes that diverse perspectives are critical to the future of this country,” said Paul Wahlbeck, dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, in which the institute is housed. “Developing global leaders is the hallmark of our university and the reason why we support an inclusive, diverse and equitable community where everyone feels like they belong and can succeed. The institute is the gold standard for making that happen.”

For Gil Cisneros, who came to GW to major in political science on a ROTC scholarship, it all comes back to providing a pathway to opportunity where all students can thrive.

“Education changed my life,” he explained. “It gave me opportunities I didn’t know were out there.” He noted one of his favorite quotes by baseball legend Jackie Robinson: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Main photo: Philanthropist and U.S. Congressman Gil Cisneros, BA ’94, speaking at an event celebrating the GW Cisneros scholars

Fins and Limbs Tell Evolutionary Tale

2 mudskippers on a log

How did our earliest ancestors take their first small steps from water to land? Biology’s Sandy Kawano follows the trail of “walking fish” on their giant leaps for humankind.

About 400 million years ago, our early ancestors took their first hesitant steps out of the primordial seas on to land.

But did they really step? Or did they crawl? Or wiggle?

Those are some of the questions Assistant Professor of Biology Sandy Kawano asks in her Fins and Limbs lab, a new addition to Science and Engineering Hall that explores the biodiversity of animals through their anatomy and movements. Using high-speed digital cameras, 3D modeling and even robots, Kawano studies how animals move in different environments—their steps, strokes and slithers. Her research is unlocking evolutionary mysteries that hold hints to modern-day problems from human health to climate change.

“Scientists often act as detectives for the past,” Kawano explained. “We’re looking at clues and trying to reconstruct what happened a long time ago.”

To pinpoint how our ancestors found their way on to land, Kawano and her collaborators draw on expertise in biology, engineering and mathematics. They use robots and computer models to reverse-engineer the movements of the four-legged vertebrates called tetrapods and their fish ancestors. Many of these early tetrapods and tetrapod-like fishes were “nature’s misfits,” Kawano says, with part-aquatic, part-terrestrial bodies. And while no one questions their giant evolutionary leap, how exactly they pulled themselves up on the prehistoric shoreline isn’t settled science.

For decades, the prevailing theory was that tetrapods essentially crawled out of the surf, wiggling their front and hind legs like salamanders. However, “paleontology has undergone a digital revolution and is revealing much more” about their sea-to-land transition, Kawano said. “We’re now starting to incorporate cutting-edge technology and animation to really get a sense of how these long-extinct fish potentially moved.” Using these new techniques, Kawano has drawn on the findings of colleagues who analyzed fossils chiseled from frozen rock in Greenland as well as observations of similar modern-day creatures like mudskippers. Their conclusion? “Some of the earliest tetrapods could not have pushed themselves up on land with hind legs like a salamander,” she said. 

In other words, early terrestrial pioneers obviously made it on to land. But how?

“One of the great things about being a scientific researcher is that you always have new mysteries to explore,” Kawano said. “We are at the tip of the iceberg in understanding how we took those first steps—and what it means to us today.”

A model of an early tetrapod from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Land Rovers

For ancient animals adapted to living in the water, the first moves to land were dangerous undertakings. True, they were leaving behind shark-like predators. But swapping their fins-for-limbs left them stuck in muddy shores, baking under the unfamiliar sun. “It wasn’t paradise,” Kawano said. Although their limbs had evolved to the point where they may have walked along the sea floor, “they still were very much aquatic animals—they were very fishy. They had to worry about drying out, they had to worry about gravity. It was not necessarily a quick switch over to a terrestrial life.”

To understand how they adapted, Kawano points to the African mudskipper. A fish that both swims in the water and crawls on the land, it’s one of the few living species believed to move in a similar way to those first land vertebrates. Using their two front appendages, which resemble a cross between fins and limbs, mudskippers don’t walk or waddle as much as they drag themselves across tidal floors and rocky beaches—not with the boost of their back legs but by pulling their bodies with their front limbs.

Assistant Professor of Biology Sandy Kawano

Kawano, a self-described “fish person,” has explored ancient anatomy and movement with a team of physicists and engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University and Clemson University. “I represented the biologists in the group,” she said. Together, the team first built a robot to replicate the mudskipper movements—a “muddy bot,” as they dubbed it. She also uses high-speed video to take slow motion recordings of live mudskippers and salamanders and fine tune ideas about the motion of the fish and their prehistoric counterparts. 

The results of her research will solve an evolutionary mystery. But the riddle of the tetrapod steps also has implications for determining how animals overcome shifting environments, including landscapes altered by climate change. And her focus on anatomy and movement may offer insights to the human body’s ailments from knee joint pain to back aches.

“The really exciting part of science is that the more new evidence we find, the more new questions we open up,” Kawano said. “Even though we are working with these extinct animals that are really, really old, they’re still bringing up new questions. There is still a lot we can learn from our past.”

Main photo: The mudskipper fish (left) and tiger salamander have been used as models to study the movements of prehistoric tetrapods. (Photos courtesy Sandy Kawano)

‘Ghetto’: Chronicling a Word’s Tortured History

Polish and Jewish laborers construct a wall that separated the Warsaw Ghetto from the rest of the city, November 1940-June 1941. (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leopold Page Photographic Collection)

History’s Daniel Schwartz has examined the centuries-old past of the word “ghetto,” from its 16th century origins to its echoes in Nazi Germany. He traces how the term has come to symbolize both pain and pride.

What is a ghetto? A racially-segregated city block? An enclave of immigrants? A walled urban prison? The ideologically charged term defies easy definition. It can be a noun or an adjective. It can refer to a physical place or a concept. And while the word comes from the Italian “gettare” for “casting,” it has at times been linked to the Yiddish “gehektes,” meaning “enclosed,” and the Latin “Giudaicetum” — “Jewish.”

Daniel Schwartz, associate professor of history and director of Columbian College’s Judaic Studies Program, has studied the word “ghetto” for nearly a decade, but he has never tried to settle on a dictionary definition of the term. Throughout his research and in his book, Ghetto: The History of a Word (Harvard University Press, 2019), Schwartz instead traces the historical path of the word from the segregated Jewish quarter of 16th century Venice to the Nazi holding-pens of Eastern Europe to the streets of New York’s Lower East Side.

Schwartz’s scholarly examination of ghettoes has been more than a lesson in linguistics. He has followed the controversial word’s footprints, combing through historical texts, digital archives and his own original research. Each reference gave him a window into the shifting nature of cultural identities. Whether associated with Jews, immigrants or African Americans, “ghetto” has evolved through history. “Depending on how it’s defined and who gets to define it,” Schwartz said, it has stood for both oppression and resilience, a sign of segregation and a badge of authenticity, a symbol of bigotry and a synonym for home.

“The history of the ghetto is also the history of the struggle over a word and the attempts to figure out what exactly it means,” Schwartz said.

“The history of the ghetto is also the history of the struggle over a word and the attempts to figure out what exactly it means.”
— Daniel Schwartz

From Europe to the U.S.

While Schwartz warns against making generalizations about ghettos, at its most basic level, the term usually applies to sections of cities where minority groups are confined by segregation policies, physical barriers or socioeconomic factors such as restricted educational opportunities or low-paying jobs.  

The first use of the word “ghetto” was in Venice, Italy, in 1516. The city’s Jews were required by law to reside in just a few small blocks. (The ghetto was near what had been the city’s copper foundry, hence the Italian derivation of the word for “casting” and the Venetian term “getto” for “foundry.”) In the 16th and 17th centuries, cities like Venice and Rome forcibly segregated their Jewish populations, often walling them off and submitting them to a set of restrictions. In the late 19th century, the word crossed the Atlantic Ocean, settling into immigrant-heavy areas like New York’s Lower East Side and Chicago’s Near West Side. Immigrants weren’t legally mandated to live in these densely-packed districts, but they were often trapped by discrimination in housing and hiring. Framed by factories and docks, author Jack London called them “working-class ghettos.”

Back in Europe, “ghetto” was appropriated for the desolate sections of Nazi-occupied cities where Jews were held before being shipped to death camps. Today, Schwartz said, the word is probably most associated with impoverished inner-city African American neighborhoods. Throughout the word’s history, “it has had mostly negative connotations,” Schwartz said. “It’s often associated with overcrowding, poverty and racial and religious segregation. When most of us think of ghettos, we picture people confined in dilapidated conditions against their will.”

A Source of Pain and Pride

As Schwartz delved deeper into the shifting meanings of “ghetto,” he also made the case for a more nuanced understanding of the word. Yes, “ghetto” can draw a roadmap of historical persecution, he noted. But it has also, at times, celebrated a culture’s strength, from its shared heritage to its social and artistic triumphs.

Daniel Schwartz (Photo: Juana Lutzky)

The crowded Lower East Side of the early 20th century, for example, was rife with disease. Its packed tenements were prime sources of fire deaths. Still, the Jews who settled there established synagogues, libraries and Jewish-owned businesses. “People have sometimes looked at the ghetto not as a prison but as a fortress, a place of security, a place that represents home, however modest it may be,” Schwartz said. Harlem’s ghetto was the setting for the 1920s artistic renaissance with writers like Langston Hughes and musicians like Billie Holiday. Even the notorious Warsaw ghetto of Nazi-occupied Poland is remembered for the doomed Jewish resistance fighters who staged a courageous uprising in 1943 against overwhelming odds.

Schwartz also dissected the use of “ghetto” in slang and pop culture, reflecting its pull between poverty and pride. “Ghetto” can be a dehumanizing insult, as in “being ghetto” which usually means behaving in a low-class manner. But other slang terms such as “ghetto fabulous” or “ghetto chic” convey a flashy glamour. “You can see the double-edged nature of the word,” Schwartz said. “It can be something that is low-quality but also something that has a flamboyant high quality.”

In past semesters, Schwartz has taught an undergraduate course on the ghetto as a concept. As in his book, Schwartz resisted handing his students easy definitions. He typically opened his classes by asking students to call out terms they associated with the word. Many responded with “poverty,” “segregation” or “crime.” By the end of the class and by the end of his book, his students and readers often discovered a wider array of words. Both, Schwartz says, were generally “surprised to learn the history of some of the more positive understandings of the term.” As a word, “ghetto,” can tell the story of centuries of people and places, Schwartz said. “Depending on who uses it and how it’s used, it’s a word that keeps telling stories today.”

Main photo: Polish and Jewish laborers construct a wall that separated the Warsaw Ghetto from the rest of the city, November 1940-June 1941. (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leopold Page Photographic Collection)

Stepping Up During COVID Crisis

CCAS Student Leisha Mahajan holds up a mask that she made during COVID-19 pandemic

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, many are finding ways to help out in a time of need. Meet a Columbian College student and a recent graduate who are aiding their hard-hit communities by volunteering at a foodbank and making masks.

Sewing Lesson: Alumna Launches Mask-Making Project

Leisha Mahajan, BA ’20, can barely sew a stich. But that didn’t stop the political science major from organizing a mask-making project for Maryland hospitals struggling with supply shortages during the COVID pandemic. Bringing together friends, family and fellow students, she formed a group called FightCV. Just weeks into the COVID crisis, the group made and delivered more than 1,000 masks for health care workers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and Howard County General Hospital in Columbia, Md.

“Everyone is trying to find a way to do something—anything—to help out,” she said. “Just because we are social distancing, we don’t have to disengage from society. There are definitely ways to come together to make a difference.”

Mahajan is no stranger to charitable causes. As a student at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, she volunteered with Brady, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing gun violence, and regularly participated in GW Dance Marathon, raising funds for the Children’s National Health System. When her internship with the Washington D.C. Public Defenders office ended prematurely due to the pandemic, Mahajan was determined to help her community. Concerned about hospital mask shortages, she took up a needle and thread—only to discover that she had no sewing talent.

“It took me so long to make just one mask that I realized maybe this wasn’t the best use of my strengths,” she laughed. Instead, Mahajan coordinated the FightCV mask-making project. While friends and family work their sewing machines, Mahajan handled everything from procuring the material—their daily output of 350 cloth masks required 30 yards of fabric—to managing deliveries with hospital materials offices. Through her social media accounts, Mahajan create a webinar on how to make masks and tips on other ways to help out­, like blood donations and food drives.

She also teamed with Corcoran students to design thank-you cards that are digitally delivered to hospital professionals and employees of essential businesses like grocery stores. Most hospitals do not accept physical cards, but they encourage people to send digital versions of hand-made cards.

Mahajan stresses that her cloth-and-elastic masks are not medical-grade protection equipment. The FightCV masks are mainly used by nurses, technicians and custodial staff when not in direct contact with coronavirus patients. The hospital staff also disinfect the masks before distributing them. Mahajan notes that each hospitals’ needs are different—some, for example, want single-use masks, others request reusable items. She advised contacting individual hospitals before embarking on your own donation projects.

“Everyone is trying to find a way to do something—anything—to help out. . . . There are definitely ways to come together to make a difference.”
— Leisha Mahajan

Feeding Hope: At Foodbank, Student Serves Her Community

Sophomore Sophie Gengler has volunteered at the Neighbors 4 Neighbors foodbank in Palm Desert, Calif., since middle school. For years, she’s distributed fresh fruit, canned goods and frozen fish and chicken to needy families in her community.

Sophie Gengler standing in front of a red brick wall with ivy
Sophomore Sophie Gengler volunteers at a community foodbank in her California hometown.

But since the start of the COVID crisis, that need has grown beyond anything Gengler has seen before. Like foodbanks around the country, Neighbors 4 Neighbors struggled with a surge in demand for their services—even as they suffered from a shortage of volunteers and supplies. The program usually serves about 400 families a week. At the onset of the pandemic, it was common for more than 1,000 families to seek aid at their church headquarters each day.

“There are more people who need more help than ever before,” said Gengler, a cognitive neuroscience major. “And we’re trying to take care of as many of them as we can.”

Supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and donations from local restaurants, Neighbors 4 Neighbors supplies staples of produce, proteins and carbohydrates to the Palm Desert community. Until recently, it also operated a thrift shop in the church basement where people could sort through donated clothing while waiting for the food distribution.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, the foodbank transformed into a drive-thru operation. Inside the church, volunteers in masks and gloves packed food supplies for families of four. Outside, rows of waiting vehicles stretched from the parking lot into nearby Highway 74, Maserati’s and BMW’s alongside trucks and mini-vans. “This is a very desperate time. There are families here that we help often. But I’m also seeing new people who never thought they would go to a foodbank,” she said. As the cars pulled up to the curb, volunteers like Gengler deposited bags of groceries in their trunks and waved them back on the road as quickly as possible. “Nobody leaves empty handed,” Gengler said.

Gengler, who has volunteered for causes such as environmental activism and reproductive rights, credits the foodbank with keeping her positive during anxious times. In addition to helping her community, she also feels like she’s making a difference in a global emergency.

“In years to come, we’ll all look back and ask ourselves, ‘What did you do in a time of crisis?’” she said.  “I want to be able to say that, when people needed me most, I was doing all that I could to help.”

Main Image: Leisha Mahajan, BA ’20, recruited friends, family and fellow students to help make masks for Maryland hospitals.

Making a Difference: Alumni Lend Helping Hands

Sathya Prakash Harihar takes a nap on a picnic table while wearing lab attire

During the coronavirus pandemic, alumni have come to the aid of their communities—in their hometowns, across the country and around the world. Read about a few of the many ways Colonials are impacting lives and inspiring hope.

Anthony Arias: An EMT on the Frontlines

As a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT) in Bergen County, N.J., Anthony Arias, BA ’11, has responded to a gamut of calls from elderly people in distress to drug overdoses to traffic accidents. A financial services entrepreneur and Columbian College of Arts and Sciences National Council member, Arias understands that every time he climbs into an ambulance, he faces a dangerous uncertainty. “Until you arrive at the scene, you don’t know what you’ll find,” he said.

Anthony Arias, BA ’11

And that was never been more true than during the COVID-19 crisis. Around the country, already taxed EMT’s have faced dire equipment and manpower shortages. Still, Arias always answers the bell for his 12-hour shifts. “This is my community—where I have family, clients, a business,” said the former economics and history major. “This is a way for me to give back and help out in their worst hours.”

Arias first received his EMT training while attending GW and now volunteers with a private ambulance organization, providing assistance as needed. “When I get to a scene, I identify the situation, stabilize the patient and get them to a hospital fast,” he explained.

As a crew chief, it’s Arias’ job to access a potential COVID case, entering a patient’s home by himself, checking symptoms and deciding whether to transport someone to an ER. He doesn’t think about the dangers to himself—even as his masks and safety supplies have dwindled. Instead, he focuses on the patients in his ambulance, many of whom are elderly and alone.

“There’s a lot of panic and confusion but I try to bring a calming presence to every call,” he said. “We see people who feel they have no one to turn to. I let them know that there’s someone here for them.”

“This is my community—where I have a family, clients, a business. This is a way for me to give back and help out in their worst hours.”
— Anthony Arias

Aaron Kwittken: Communicating in a Crisis

Aaron Kwittken, BA ’92

In times of crisis, millions of people turn to nonprofits organizations for basic needs, from health care to food and shelter to a comforting shoulder.

But what happens when it’s the nonprofits themselves who need a helping hand?

During the COVID-19 crisis, many nonprofits found their already strained budgets, staff and resources stretched to the breaking point. Worried simply about keeping their lights on, many have been forced to put all but the most vital services on the backburner.

Aaron Kwittken, BA ’92, is trying to help. The founder and CEO of KWT Global, a brand strategy and public relations agency, he offered pro bono crisis communications aid to nonprofits struggling to stay in touch with donors, volunteers and the people who rely on their services. They include a charity that supports young people with cancer and a nonprofit that provides free legal services to women facing challenges like workplace discrimination and domestic abuse. His firm also produces a podcast highlighting nonprofit efforts. 

“A lot of nonprofits don’t have professional communicators on staff,” said Kwittken, who majored in psychology and speech communication and recently joined the School of Media and Public Affairs’ National Council. “They’re very good at providing services. They’re very good at fundraising. But they may lack those extra communications resources, such as messaging guidance or determining the best ways to convey difficult decisions like cancellations. That’s where we can step in.”

At the outset of the crisis, Kwittken advised nonprofits to continue communicating with their audiences—even if their own strategy remains uncertain. “Don’t go dark,” he said. “Just because you don’t have all the answers yet doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t communicate.” Still, he warned them not to clutter email boxes with repetitive information like hand-washing tutorials. Instead, Kwittken recommended sending specific messages about crucial actions—whether reminding people not to freeze their memberships or asking donors for much-needed support. “Send immediate calls-to-action that are unapologetic and straightforward,” he said.

Kwittken stressed that nonprofit services to vulnerable people are more important now than ever. And he’s hoping that the coronavirus crisis opens people’s eyes to their work. “I think we will come out on the other side of this with a heightened sense of gratitude and appreciation.”

Sathya Prakash Harihar: Long Days in the Laboratory

As the coronavirus first emerged across the United States, Sathya Prakash Harihar, MFS ’19, saw his life turned upside—personally and professionally.

Sathya Prakash Harihar standing in front of a boat dock
Sathya Prakash Harihar, MFS ’19

At 6:30 a.m., he began his daily shifts as a laboratory scientist with Solaris Diagnostics in Lexington, Ky. He pulled goggles over his eyes and covered his mouth and nose with a mask. He donned a hairnet, a lab coat and two pairs of gloves that he duct-taped to his sleeves so not even a sliver of skin was exposed. Sixteen hours and as many as 900 coronavirus tests later, Harihar shed his protective gear and hurried home to grab a quick bath and a rushed dinner. When his alarm rang before sunrise the next morning, he was right back at it again.

“It’s exhausting—that’s for sure,” said Harihar, a forensic molecular biology major who started at Solaris in March and, by April, was testing potential coronavirus samples virtually around the clock. “It’s mentally draining because we have to concentrate intently on each sample. But a biologist’s work is physically taxing too. I’m on my feet, moving around the lab, bending over samples. By the end of the day, I feel like I’m an old man with back pain.”

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Solaris’ 35 employees—including technicians, database engineers and Harihar’s analysis team of seven forensic scientists—examined about 300 cases a day, mostly suspected respiratory diseases like influenza. After the virus outbreak, delivery trucks pulled up to their loading dock each morning with more than 1,000 COVID tests from hospitals, nursing homes and health departments around the country. Harihar and his colleagues extract DNA from swabs, apply chemical reagents that target the virus and use a cutting-edge machine called a Real Time-Polymerase Chain Reaction to test 100 samples at once. About 2 to 3 percent are positive.

Harihar isn’t concerned about the dangers of handling the virus. He is more worried about his parents in India, with whom he Skypes during his few off-hours. “What I’m doing is miniscule. There are many people doing a lot more,” he said. “But I’m happy my work can inform medical decisions and maybe help people around the country.”

Main Image: Laboratory scientist Sathya Prakash Harihar, MFS ’19, takes a break during his 16-hour shift examining COVID test samples.

Alumni Physicians on the COVID Frontlines

Dr. Luke Frey wearing a face helmet & a n95 mask

As the coronavirus turned New York hospitals into crisis zones, Doctors Luke Fey, BS ’13, and Alexandra Cummings, BS ’14—former Columbian College biology students—put themselves in harm’s way to confront a global medical emergency.

In early March, the emergency department at New York–Presbyterian Queens Hospital was abuzz with stories of coronavirus outbreaks from China to Italy. Dr. Luke Fey, BS ’13, heard rumors of overrun emergency rooms and ventilator shortages. But each morning brought a busy new patient-load to his ER, and little chance to stop and think about a virus on the other side of the world. “To be honest, it didn’t feel real to me,” said Fey, a third-year emergency medicine resident. 

Just a few weeks later, New York City would become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and Fey, along with healthcare workers across the country, would be on the frontlines of a global crisis. From the middle of March through early April, Fey’s emergency room was inundated with dozens of coronavirus cases each day. With patients lining the ER hallways, he spent 12-hour shifts racing from 20-year-olds doubled over with cough and fever to senior citizens wheezing into oxygen tanks.

“Every day wore you down—emotionally, physically, mentally,” he said. “I never thought I’d see anything like it.”

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital staffs around the world have struggled to keep up with waves of patients and shortages of supplies—all while putting aside fears for their own safety. “We’ve rallied together to fight the virus,” said Dr. Alexandra Cummings, BS ’14, a pediatric resident at Cohen Children’s Medical Center on Long Island. “This is something we’ll remember forever and—cross your fingers—never face again.” 

At the pandemic’s peak in New York City, Fey said his ER was a non-stop crisis zone. “We were at the point where pretty much everyone coming in had coronavirus—and they didn’t stop coming,” he said.  As beds filled rapidly, his hospital converted every spare space from the cafeteria to the ORs into COVID wards. Still, the overcrowded ER was treating three times its patient capacity. Fey’s team never experienced an extreme ventilator shortage, but they quickly realized that intubating the sickest patients wasn’t always effective. “They weren’t getting any better,” he said. “If you ended up on a ventilator, you had a very high mortality rate.”

“Every day wore you down. . . . I never thought I’d see anything like it.”
— Dr. Luke Fey

In the hospital parking lot, refrigerated tractor trailers served as make-shift morgues as Fey held emotional conversations with families. He watched critical patients send FaceTime goodbyes to their families and escorted an elderly woman through the locked-down ER for a final visit with her husband. “I can keep it together with my patients. But seeing what the families go through hit me hard,” he said.

Dr. Alexandra Cummings, BS ’14, is a pediatric resident at Cohen Children’s Medical Center on Long Island.

Even non-emergency hospital workers were recruited into COVID care. At Cohen, Cummings’ pediatric colleagues were deployed to help care for COVID patients in other areas of the hospital as she helped convert her units into coronavirus centers. “There’s literally no part of the hospital that isn’t accommodating COVID patients,” she said. Postpartum mothers and newborns were moved to a separate building. But with many other New York hospitals closing their labor and delivery units, more pregnant women were diverted to Cohen. Mothers who tested positive for COVID could room with their babies if they were asymptotic. But women with more severe symptoms were separated from their newborns. “It’s heartbreaking for a new mom to miss that first physical bonding with her baby,” Cummings said.

After the initial COVID outbreak, Fey saw patient volume ease from an onrush to a steady stream. After a brief shortage of personal protection equipment, he and his colleagues had a surplus of supplies, like donated 3D-printed face shields and the N95 masks that he rarely takes off—and that left a rash of blisters across his nose. But Fey said coronavirus cases will continue to be his main concern into the foreseeable future. “I’m feeling rejuvenated,” he said, “but I know this won’t be over any time soon.”

Main Image: Dr. Luke Fey, BS ’13, wears an N95 mask and face shield at the New York–Presbyterian Hospital emergency room.