The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Anjali Mohan Honored with College’s Highest Award

Mon, March 30, 2009

Anjali Mohan, a Government and Economics, Plan II Honors student, has been named one of the 12 Dean’s Distinguished Graduates in the College of Liberal Arts for 2008-09. Every year the college names 12 Dean’s Distinguished Graduates on the basis of high achievements in scholarship, leadership, and service to the college. Instituted in 1980, to date, 345 Dean’s Distinguished Graduates have been so honored. This is the highest award the college gives its students.

A non-exhaustive list of Anjali’s awards makes her scholastic achievements readily apparent. In 2008, she received a Plan II Thesis Travel Grant to conduct field research on criminal procedure and the use of the jury trial in India, as well as a H. Malcolm MacDonald Memorial Scholarship for academic achievement in Government. In 2007, her research paper on “Liberating Women in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America” was one of three prize-winning papers presented at the 15th Annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Political Science, at Illinois State University, and published in Critique: A worldwide journal of politics.

But even more apparent, Anjali’s leadership and service truly distinguish her. Jeffrey Tulis advised Anjali on her 2007 research project: “I am struck by the awe and respect that Anjali elicits from her peers. She is a natural leader who leads through the force of her intellect,” he said. Juliet Hooker is the faculty advisor for students writing honors theses in political theory: “Not many students combine such a high level of academic achievement with the dedication and commitment to working to better the lives of others she has already demonstrated. I cannot think of a more deserving candidate,” she said.

Government, economics, leadership, service – for those familiar with the scholarly literature on the subjects, the name Mancur Olson may jump to mind. For it was Mancur Olson who expounded a theory of collective action and, more to the point, the barriers that individual and rational self-interest create for individual and group action in pursuit of common goods. Much of Olson’s theory is captured in the penultimate paragraph of The Logic of Collective Action, published for the first time in 1965, in which he discusses the relationship between inflation and individual spending. Olson contemplates that inflation could be curtailed if people individually lowered their spending (and, conversely, that depression could be reversed if people individually increased their spending), but the odds are against such action. Olson writes: “The rational individual in the economic system does not curtail his spending to prevent inflation (or increase it to prevent depression) because he knows, first, that his own efforts would not have a noticeable effect, and second, that he would get the benefits of any price stability that others achieved in any case.”

The Logic of Collective Action lays out two main barriers to leadership, organization, and public service more generally: individuals are unlikely to act because their impact is likely to be miniscule, and, further, if other people act for them, they will benefit just the same. But, Anjali’s record of leadership and service demonstrate just how difficult it is to promulgate hard, universal laws of social science, and one could be forgiven for concluding that Anjali is dedicated to proving Mancur Olson wrong. Her list of service is long, and it includes, but is not limited to: founding an empowerment program for teenage girls in Granada, Nicaragua; launching a student lobby campaign to pass criminal justice legislation to decrease abuse in Texas correctional facilities; coordinating a month-long campaign to fight hunger in North Texas; starting a financial literacy program for low-income individuals; helping found Longhorns Speak – a forum for debating and discussing political and social issues; and working on poverty and hunger issues in East Austin with the Eastside Community Connection.

But, where Anjali got her start cuts to the heart of how Olson’s logic failed to impede her. In high school, Anjali began working with Circle of Friends, an organization that creates a social support network for individuals with disabilities. It was during this work that Anjali realized that her individual efforts could make a real difference in people’s lives, and her impact was immediate and tangible. “I am a problem-solver. When there is a problem, I will do what I can to get it solved, and this often leads to leadership,” Anjali said. “Working with special needs people in high school, I saw the direct impact that I could have on people, and this inspired me to look for other ways to do so.”

So, it was an incremental process for Anjali, where each time she made a contribution and each time she assumed a leadership position, she saw real results, and the belief grew in her that she and other individuals truly can change things and change people’s lives. “There are lots of things that people can do. To lead, you just need to be the person who says, ‘I’m going to be the one to do something about it’, and I have been fortunate to be surrounded by others who feel the same.” Moreover, Anjali believes that the University of Texas provides an atmosphere conducive to breeding leadership: “Compared to some of the smaller Ivy League schools, for example, it is such a huge environment here that I learned to take initiative for myself, find my own opportunities, and take advantage of them,” she said. “This campus is almost like living in a small city, and navigating my way through that leaves me with a much bigger sense of accomplishment than I think I would feel if I did the same at a smaller school. And the size presents so many opportunities. Being at the University of Texas has allowed me to cast an extremely wide net and given me incredible flexibility as I progressed through my academic program.”

Many of those opportunities came in the form of internships. Anjali worked as an undergraduate legal research intern for the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin, and also as a project development and finance intern for a bank in Argentina. “I encourage students to seek out all the internships they can, and to even try and find small internships,” Anjali says. “My internships have proved to be a great means for me to branch out, and they have had a huge impact on my thinking and plans for the future. Talk to upper classmen, see what’s out there, and go for it. I was kind of shy and hesitant at first, but over time, as I became more involved and received ongoing feedback, my confidence grew, in myself and in my ability to effect change.”

Anjali also encourages students to take as many honors seminars as they can, both because of their academic intensity and small class size. “My honors seminars are where things really took off for me academically – my first honors seminar in Government is what pushed me to continue with the major and in the direction I went with it, for example,” she said. “A lot of people do not realize that if you have the minimum GPA, you can take those seminars. Take classes based on your interests – find out early what you are and are not stimulated by, and take as many honors seminars as you can.”

One resource that has proven invaluable to Anjali is her membership in the Orange Jackets, an organization founded in 1923 and made up of about 40 women leaders. With the Orange Jackets, Anjali has contributed to one of the proudest bits of her legacy to the university – the Barbara Jordan Statue Project. Civil rights champion Barbara Jordan was the first African American woman from the South to serve in the U.S. Congress, and a statue in her honor will be unveiled April 24. It will be the university’s first statue honoring a prominent female public figure, and the Orange Jackets, in 2002, initiated the project.

For Anjali, the Barbara Jordan Statue Project is emblematic of what the University of Texas is and what she would like the university to strive to become even more of. “There is a lot more that can be done to promote women’s leadership,” she said, “but the statue project shows what UT is and what I’d like to see it become more of – a diverse community that encourages leadership from and opportunity for a large population of people from different backgrounds.”

As she has worked on the project, Anjali has been increasingly drawn to the life of Barbara Jordan. “The more I’ve learned about her, the more I’ve been impressed by her ability to demand change, and to actually change the way people look at women and blacks in politics, and how she never let her own circumstances deter her from pushing for the change she thought necessary. What I have learned about Barbara Jordan,” Anjali continued, “really coincides with my belief in the need to speak up and step in when necessary, to take action and to take a leadership position. I have seen what can be done when individuals act, and when surrounded by other individuals who are motivated and dedicated, we can really make a huge difference.”

This spirit of civic engagement is really the string that ties together Anjali’s diverse pursuits, and it is very much a spirit in the tradition of Barbara Jordan’s message. In one of her more well-known speeches, at the Democratic Party Convention in 1976, Barbara Jordan said: “A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good. A government is invigorated when each of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation … Let each person do his or her part.” It is the absolute antithesis of Olson’s logic of collective action, but that logic is something Anjali continually insists on defying. “If people take it upon themselves to act, to do small things now that are forward-looking, with a long-term perspective, then action now can have a big impact later,” Anjali said. “I want people to be engaged. If we think about issues ahead of time we can do small things that prevent crisis, rather than have to react after crisis has already unfolded.”

Anjali’s record of leadership and service and her theoretical commitment to civic engagement and the power of individuals to effect change have culminated in her honors thesis, which investigates the relationship between the jury trial and democracy. The project was born out of her experience in Nicaragua, where she saw jury after jury acquit sex offenders and, during that same time, witnessed Nicaragua reform its penal code and eliminate the jury trial in rape and sex abuse cases. Culturally bound to the sanctity of the jury trial, Anjali’s curiosity was sparked by the possibility that eliminating the jury trial might lead to greater justice. Her research eventually made India, a democracy that eliminated the jury trial, the major case study of her thesis. Anjali’s thesis is innovative and ambitious, combining theoretical analysis of the relationship between jury trial and democracy with comparative, constitutional law. While Anjali is still completing her thesis, she has concluded that while the jury represents certain universal democratic principles, institutions must be evaluated contextually, with sensitivity to historical and cultural traditions. In the United States, jury participation can be a means of creating meaningful citizenship for all, and, while juries have been a source of injustice, they have also been a means for people to fight for more justice.

Jeffrey Abramson is Anjali’s thesis advisor: “Shortly after I arrived at UT, even before I had unpacked my boxes, Anjali knocked on my office door. She had heard I wrote on juries and with great passion, she began to tell me about her summer experiences in Nicaragua and her dismay at the way juries there decided several trials she had witnessed involving assaults on women. She was eager to study the jury to learn more about its democratic credentials and its apparent shortcomings in Nicaragua. This interest has led this year to her honors thesis, a splendid study that moves seamlessly from historical analysis of the origins of the modern jury in England, to its evolution in the United States, to its rejection in India. Anjali is that rare student who turns her passions into scholarship.”

Congratulations to Anjali. The students chosen as Dean’s Distinguished Graduates excel both inside and outside of the classroom. They are often honors students or those who have undertaken extensive undergraduate research projects, while others will be active in leadership positions either in the college, university, or community. Whatever their specific achievements, these are students who best represent the academic and service ideals of the college.

Anjali will be recognized during Honors Day on April 4, acknowledged in the May commencement program, and individually recognized during the Liberal Arts convocation on May 22. Her name will ultimately be inscribed on the Dean’s Distinguished Graduates wall of honor located in the advising suite of the Gebauer Building. Anjali will begin law school in the fall, most likely at Harvard University.

By Stuart Tendler

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