UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A Penn State World Campus alumna is the inaugural recipient of a yearlong fellowship through the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.
Morrgan Herlihy is currently a Penn State political science and social data analytics doctoral student. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Political Science online through Penn State World Campus in 2020.
The late Susan Welch, who served as dean of the College of the Liberal Arts for nearly three decades, was a distinguished political science scholar and academic leader. She was also a noteworthy philanthropist; during her lifetime, Welch and her husband — the late Alan Booth, former distinguished professor of sociology, human development, and demography — contributed or pledged nearly $3 million to Penn State and the college.
Before Welch passed away in March 2022, she made bequests to create the Director's Fund for the Choral Program in the School of Music in the College of Arts and Architecture and the Russ and Lori Rose Women's Volleyball Scholarship in Intercollegiate Athletics. She also made a bequest that elevated the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Scholarship in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy — a summer research fund created by Welch in 2017 and named in honor of one of her personal heroes — to a yearlong fellowship for a promising graduate student.
Herlihy, a research assistant with the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, is the inaugural recipient of the new Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Fellowship.
Herlihy’s path to pursuing her doctorate, however, was somewhat unconventional. A Connecticut resident, she attended college immediately after high school but left for personal reasons and instead launched what she described as a successful career in business management.
“Always in the back of my mind, though, was that this wasn’t where I wanted to see myself,” she said.
Ultimately, the decision to change careers was forced upon her when the retail chain she worked for declared bankruptcy.
“I was always interested in state or federal government work, so I started applying for jobs,” she said. “I quickly realized that even though my skill set was very applicable, working in government without a degree in political science was basically frowned upon.”
Determined to return to college but needing an online option, Herlihy enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Political Science program offered online through Penn State World Campus because of its quality and affordability.
“My plan was to finish my bachelor’s degree as quickly as I could and then get a master’s degree,” Herlihy said.
She reconsidered when one of her Penn State World Campus instructors asked about her future plans and said she would make an excellent doctoral candidate due to the caliber of her work and ideas.
“I never thought pursuing a Ph.D. would be feasible,” Herlihy said, referring to the cost of a five-year doctoral program versus the two-year master’s. “I already thought I was sacrificing a lot to do my bachelor’s and then master’s degree, but Penn State offered me funding that really sealed the deal. The Roosevelt Memorial Fellowship made things even better.”
For her research project, Herlihy is studying legislatures at both the national and subnational levels and how institutions within those legislatures — such as parties, committees, and caucuses — affect legislative outcomes. She is also studying the judicial selection process within the Senate, looking at whether senators treat nominees to the federal courts differently — and how partisanship might motivate obstructionism in this process.
“Morrgan's research addresses pressing questions about American democracy, from how to make state legislatures more productive to understanding the causes and consequences of Senate dysfunction,” said Herlihy’s adviser, Michael Nelson, professor of political science. “She is a diligent, careful, and imaginative scholar whose research has important consequences for both academics and policy-makers.”
Buoyed by the fellowship, Herlihy expects to complete her dual-title doctorate in political science and social data analytics in 2026. She would eventually like to work for the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan association composed of sitting state legislators from the states, territories, and commonwealths of the United States, though she is open to other possibilities, she said.
“Being able to have this opportunity and being funded by Susan Welch are very meaningful for me,” said Herlihy, who met Welch at a dinner for graduate students just weeks before Welch passed away. “There are a lot of times when I’ll be reading a piece and come across her name and be blown away because of the impact she had on the department and on scholarship in general.
“I love Penn State, and I love the political science department,” she continued. “This fellowship is providing a great opportunity for me to focus on my research without having to hold another job. I’m going to look back on this when I’m in my 40s and 50s and know that this was the right decision for me.”
Learn more about the Bachelor of Science in Political Science offered online through Penn State World Campus in partnership with the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts.