Student Wins Essay Contest with Close-to-home Topic

The judges who awarded Briana Benson the top prize in a social science essay contest at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) praised her beautiful writing, strong argument and solid references to research.

What the panel of UMGC professors didn’t realize was just how personal the subject matter was to Benson, who is slated to complete a bachelor’s degree in social science in spring 2021.

“In Search of Stability: The Effects of Custodial Grandparenthood on the Family” took first place in this year’s Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences essay competition. In the paper, Benson noted that grandparents raising grandchildren form a growing demographic in the United States, and that “grandfamilies” are diverse in makeup and background. Benson also wrote that schools seem unprepared to meet the unusual needs of these families.

She based her conclusions on research she did for the paper, but she already knew a great deal about custodial families. Her parents have been raising a grandson and granddaughter ever since Benson’s brother died two years ago.

“Her thesis—her research question—was clear and relevant. She was very good at giving arguments in support. [The paper] was very well written. And she did a good job dealing with authoritative sources and in linking the findings to the social sciences,” said Ahalya Hejmadi, a collegiate professor of behavioral sciences and gerontology at UMGC. She was one of the contest’s four judges.

The contest submissions were anonymous. However, Hejmadi said she was not surprised to later learn about Benson’s connection to her essay topic.

“Very often people do a better job of writing about something personal. If they have an individual viewpoint, it gives depth to their work,” said Hejmadi, who is also a faculty co-adviser for UMGC’s Theta Chapter of Pi Gamma Mu. Members of the by-invitation honor society major in social science disciplines including anthropology, criminal justice, economics, gerontology, history, political science, social psychology, sociology, and women’s studies.

Benson said her parents’ story not only prompted her essay idea, but it also drives her career aspiration: to be a middle or high school counselor.

“My mom and dad were empty nesters then I watched them take in a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old. I saw what they encountered as custodial grandparents,” Benson said. “My parents were making it up as they went along—and that hit me in the heart.”

After their father died, Benson’s niece and nephew moved from their home in Texas to resettle in Alabama. It was a big adjustment for the teenagers, whose mother had died when they were preschoolers. It also was an unexpected life change for Benson’s parents.

“Neither of my parents went to college, and the generational gap means that how they raise my niece and nephew is different from how they raised me or my brother,” said Benson. She added that her favorite takeaway from the paper was discovering there are empowerment workshops for custodial grandparents.

The workshops were developed two decades ago by Carole Cox, a professor at Fordham University, and subsequently have spread around the world. They teach grandparents how to manage unexpected changes in their lives and how to strengthen their parenting skills.

“Even though there are many grandfamilies in our country, there is still not a lot of focus on this particular family setup. I would like to look more into the steps that school counselors and school personnel could take to meet the needs of these kids,” said Benson, who plans to continue on to a master’s degree. “My niece and nephew came to me for a lot of things, and I could see that school counselors were not meeting their needs.”

While taking courses at UMGC, Benson is working as a teacher’s assistant at a North Carolina preschool.

Some years ago, Benson enrolled in an online wildlife and fisheries program at Oregon State University but decided against that career field and did not complete the degree. When she decided she was ready to return to school, she began to look at social science programs. She learned about UMGC through military friends of her husband, who is in the U.S. Army.

“It’s been a really nice experience,” she said. “I’ve been an online student my entire college career because with the military you never know when you’re going to leave. At UMGC, I’ve had some really great professors.”

Benson’s prize for the essay contest included a plaque, a $100 Amazon gift card and a one-year membership to a professional organization in the social sciences. Benson chose the American Psychological Association.

Her essay will be added to UMGC’s Digital Repository, as will those of second-place winner Lauren Herbert, who wrote about “Understanding Teenage Suicide,” and Margareth Ojetola, whose paper “Understanding Teenage Suicide from a Psychological Discipline” won third-place.

This year, 19 undergraduates competed in the essay contest, which is open to all UMGC students. Marni Finkelstein, a collegiate faculty member in social science who also served as a judge in the contest, said the essays were scored against a list of criteria, and “there were a lot of really great essays.”

Because the contest’s awards ceremony could not take place in person owing to Covid-19, Benson, Herbert and Ojetola were recognized during a virtual version of the annual Pi Gamma Mu Initiation ceremony in May.

In early June, the essay contest itself picked up an accolade when it became an inaugural winner of the UMGC Student Organization Awards. The awards, to be given annually, honor student organizations in five categories. Pi Gamma Mu’s essay competition won the Best in Show Activity and Events Award for 2020.

Meanwhile, the national honor society recently added UMGC’s Theta chapter to its Roll of Distinction, the highest honor given to the chapters.