Sophomore Invited to Present Paper at International Conference


Anastasia Bekker, Class of 2024, was invited to participate on a panel session during the annual conference of the Philippine Society for Public Administration.

Anastasia Bekker '24 at her laptop

Sophomore Anastasia Bekker had the unique opportunity to present a research paper at an international virtual conference hosted by the Philippine Society for Public Administration. Bekker was part of a panel of four presenters, and she had about 15 minutes to discuss her paper, which was titled, The COVID-19 Pandemic and its Polarizing Impact on Education in Harford County, Maryland.

Tahir Shad, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies was the one to facilitate the opportunity for Bekker. He has participated with this conference previously and felt that Bekker joining one of the sessions would be a good opportunity for her to think critically about the pandemic and how it has impacted Harford County – her home county – in particular.

“I had Anastasia in my class last year and was thoroughly impressed with her writing and analytical thinking,” Shad said. “In 32 years of teaching, I’ve only come across four or five students like her, so I felt like this was a good challenge for her academic growth.”

The conference was titled: “Beyond the Pandemic: Reexamining, Reimagining, Retooling, Refounding and Reenergizing Public Administration and Governance,” and Bekker and Shad felt that the attendees would be interested in hearing Maryland’s perspective on this global issue. The conference had roughly 700 people in attendance.

Bekker’s initial research was centered around how the pandemic and education intertwined and became politicized, but ultimately much of her focus was on the polarizing debate around face masks. She had about two months to prepare, which included writing a 15-page research paper on her topic. As part of her research, she read newspaper articles, reviewed the Harford County website, and listened to recordings of the Board of Education meetings. The culminating event was, of course, the live presentation during the virtual conference.

An excerpt from her paper’s abstract reads: “Harford County, Maryland is a perfect case study of the difficulty faced by local governments in assessing pressures from different interest groups and voters with state and federal mandates, as well as the health and safety of its constituents. The issue over whether or not students should be required to wear masks when returning to in-person learning came to a head at a school board meeting on August 16, 2021, with protestors’ unruly conduct shutting down the meeting. Intense protests like this illustrate that decisions about education are now more than ever tangled with larger debates on personal freedom.

“At first, I didn’t really understand how big of a deal this was,” Bekker said. On top of that, the conference was on Manila time - 12 hours ahead - which meant that it was 2 a.m. local time when it came time to present. “I think I was too tired to actually be nervous,” she added. “I definitely drank lots of coffee!”

Bekker, who is working towards a double major in Political Science and Economics, noted that this experience was beneficial in a number of ways, including developing good time management. “This wasn’t for a class, so I really had to keep track of myself and set my own deadlines,” she said. “Being a part of something so high-profile also gave me a confidence boost – I enjoyed knowing that the people attending this conference wanted to hear what I had to say.”

It also helped her to learn more about where she comes from, having grown up in Abingdon, Maryland.

“I tried to examine all of the political factors at play; for example, understanding the interest groups that were involved,” she said. “I also sought to understand the role that misinformation and inflammatory media played, as well as misinformation by trusted sources.”

“It was definitely eye-opening,” she added. “Board of Education meetings are usually pretty tame, and there were physical altercations going on. It brings up some really interesting questions about the role media are playing in fueling politics. They have actually revitalized these local government meetings, but is this good or bad? We should all want people to actively participate in government, but what happens when that participation is fueled by anger and aggression?”

Shad noted that he received feedback from the General Secretary that they were impressed with Bekker and found her presentation to be quite good.

“This conference represents the types of opportunities that we can provide for our students here at Washington College,” Shad said. “It’s this kind of mentoring that sets us apart.”