Alumna Awarded Prestigious Cambridge Scholarship
By Amber Khan '14, Contributing Writer
Tovah Ackerman ’09 was recently named one of 29 recipients of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. This award will support her for a year of graduate study

at the University of Cambridge to earn a Master’s in Philosophy in Criminology.She is the College’s third Gates Scholar in the decade since the program’s inauguration.

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship is the result of a $210 million donation given to Cambridge University by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is the single-largest donation ever given to a United Kingdom university, and it has supported over 1,000 scholars from over 90 countries since it’s inauguration.

While at the College, Ackerman was a member of the women’s track and cross country teams. She was also a research assistant to Professor Austin Sarat, head of the Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought (LJST) Department.

“Once I started taking LJST classes, I fell in love with the study of the law, and after spending a summer interning at the Innocence Project in Boston, I became passionate about the criminal justice system and the prisoner’s rights in particular,” Ackerman said.

According to Sarat, Ackerman stands out among many scholars because she possesses a rare combination of “intelligence and humanity.” While at the College, she was awarded the Robert Cover Prize for excellence in the LJST Department.

“[Due to] her outstanding thesis and active participation in many LJST-sponsored events, Tovah was the obvious choice,” Sarat said.

Sarat believes that the Gates Cambridge Scholarship given to Ackerman is “richly deserved.” During her senior year at the College, Ackerman co-founded a program called Community Partnerships in Education: Pathways to College, through which Amherst students volunteered to tutor Hampshire County Correctional Facility inmates through online community college courses. The prison ended the program, but Ackerman’s initiative is cited as indicative of her potential to effect change in prison reform and expand discourse on the penal system.

Ackerman is currently working with the Federal Defenders of New York and will continue to work with those accused of federal crimes until she leaves for Cambridge.

“I’m so excited about the international experience the Gates will afford me. I’m looking at this next year as an opportunity not only to continue my studies but to travel as much as possible throughout Europe,” Ackerman said. “I think an international, comparative study of criminality may help the U.S. amend and improve its own criminal justice system.”

Her study at the University of Cambridge will allow her to compare cultural discourses on monstrosity " the ways one perceives, writes about, and treats criminals. Ackerman explained the monstrosity in applying for the scholarship.

“To describe someone as a monster is to dehumanize them, to categorize them as an ‘other,’ unrecognizable by human standards. Once an individual is marginalized rhetorically, I believe it becomes easier to both desire and effect their physical marginalization to the outer boundaries of human interaction,” Ackerman wrote. “Prisons provide the perfect space for this type of physical exile.”

Fellowships Coordinator Denise Gagnon, explained that the process of applying involves writing a project proposal, requesting letters of recommendation and, if selected as a finalist, the applicant must attend a foundation interview. Gagnon’s role as the Fellowship Coordinator is instrumental to the process as she advises students with regard to “what the foundations are looking for.”

“They are looking for people who are passionate,” Gagnon said. “They want to see what you will do to help people and how you will represent the United States.”

Ackerman’s plans are to continue her research at the University of Cambridge while maintaining her work in the field of criminal justice and social justice. After studying at Cambridge, Ackerman hopes to earn her Ph.D. in either criminology or socio-legal studies. She also plans to teach, write and work with or help create nonprofit prison reform organizations.

“I hope that a grassroots approach to prison reform may eventually cause systemic change in the way we think about and respond to crime,” Ackerman said.

Issue 16, Submitted 2011-02-23 03:59:03