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Student's paper wins national political science award

Taylor Jacoby’s journey from Provo to the villages of Uganda just landed the Brigham Young University student a national award in political science.

A senior majoring in economics and political science, Jacoby conducted field research on the lives of Ugandan women who have suffered violent crimes. The paper she wrote went on to become one of two runners-up in the Pi Sigma Alpha 2012 “Best Undergraduate Class Papers” competition. PSA is the only national political science honor society for college and university students of government in the United States.

The award comes with a cash prize of $100 and prominent publication in the Fall PSA newsletter and upcoming issue of PS: Political Science and Politics, a peer-reviewed journal on contemporary politics.

 “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen as much intellectual and personal energy poured into a research project,” said Daniel Nielson, a BYU political science professor. “It was a tremendous undertaking, and Taylor designed it and wrote it like a professional political scientist. It’s a terrific piece of research.”

For several semesters, she did everything possible to prepare for her study before boarding a plane to Uganda, a nation that emerged from a long-standing civil war a decade ago.

Soon after, she was joined by Nielson and several students also participating in the BYU Uganda Mentored Research Abroad program, which offers students from all majors the chance to perform field research under the guidance of experienced researchers.

For more than two months, Jacoby spent countless hours forming her research team, riding in Land Rovers across Uganda and delving into a post-conflict issue she feels is particularly critical. Violence like civil war undoubtedly takes a severe toll on a nation’s sustainable peace, stability and prosperity. But as Jacoby demonstrates through her research, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) crimes strike hardest at the threads of society.

“So much of a social network is disrupted by war and we need women to rebuild it,” Jacoby explained. “The problem is that women who experience SGBV often struggle with social issues themselves like a huge lack of trust and heightened sense of paranoia, avoidance and withdrawal. These women have a much harder time adjusting in their communities than if they were recovering from crimes unrelated to their gender.”

By partnering with local NGOs, Jacoby met with over 100 northern Ugandan women who were willing to relate their often frequent and heartbreaking experiences related to violence. The data soon showed that each additional instance of SGBV had a significant negative impact on women’s levels of social capital – the trust, cooperation and norms that allow societies to function peacefully.

“We have so much evidence that women need to be involved in decision making and peace-making in order to make the peace process stick,” Jacoby said. “Nations that don’t address the challenges women face as a result of SGBV trauma will lose some of their greatest strengths."

Jacoby was dedicated to telling the story of the Ugandan women – a story she found is much more dynamic than she ever could have learned without being there.

For example, on one of her last days in the field, she was asked by a translator to come to a nearby hospital. Upon arriving, Jacoby learned the translator’s two-year old daughter had become violently ill during the night and that the worried mother simply wanted Jacoby to sit with them. Eventually, the woman’s own mother and sister joined as well. Jacoby suddenly found herself in the middle of a family circle, riddled by grief but bound by love.

“I spent so much time surveying women and trying desperately to understand their lives,” Jacoby said. “But it was so academic, so removed. In that hospital room, I was finally invited to see the anxiety, sadness, closeness, strength and laughter of three generations of Ugandan women.  I realized there that no academic research, no matter how good, can show the complexity of these women's real lives.”

Because such accounts resonate with her still, Jacoby was thrilled that the research that started out as a classroom capstone project was able to place as one of the top three undergraduate research papers in the country.

“So often we write papers for class and never think about them again, but I cared so much about what I was writing,” Jacoby explained. “I was more excited that such a high-profile institution highlighted these issues than I was about receiving the actual award.”

Now after spending so much time conducting first-hand research, Jacoby is currently interning at the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C. Though she admits the work environment is not the same as field study, it’s a city she has long hoped to explore and eventually land her first job in.

“Graduate school is on the horizon,” she said. “And at some point, I would love to return to Uganda. I gain something every time I travel, but to go somewhere so different and see how complicated poverty really is changed my world view in ways that reading about those issues simply couldn’t have done.”

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Taylor Jacoby and a translator conducting a field interview with a Ugandan woman.

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A group from the Grassroots Women Association for Development who helped pilot Taylor Jacoby's surveys.

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From left: Kurt Hepler, a fellow BYU student who assisted on the project; Joan, a translator; Taylor Jacoby; Pamela, another translator.

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Taylor Jacoby and others from the gender-based violence unit of the Northern Uganda Malaria AIDS and Tuberculosis program, one of five NGOs that helped with the research by taking her on field excursions to interview their beneficiaries.

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Taylor worked with the help of translators (Pamela is seen braiding hair, Joan is sitting on the right). The picture is taken outside Health Alert Uganda, an NGO she collaborated with.

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Taylor with a group of children she met during the study abroad.
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