MBU Professor Receives National Award for Chapter Advising

Laura van Assendelft, professor of political science, has received the Best Chapter Advisor Award from the national political science honor society, Pi Sigma Alpha. 

This award recognizes faculty members who demonstrate extraordinary commitment to their chapters and who act as dedicated mentors supporting student leaders.

“The value of the honor society experience to its student members depends to a great degree upon the leadership of their chapter advisor, and this special commendation is reserved for the most exemplary advisors,” wrote Sean Twombly, executive director of Pi Sigma Alpha, in a letter announcing van Assendelft’s award.

With 840 chapters across the country, the society awarded only four faculty members with the title in 2020.

“The students at Mary Baldwin University are what make this group so much fun,” Van Assendelft said, “so this honor is received on behalf of them and the energy and enthusiasm they contribute to political science.” 

Laura van Assendelft, professor of political science, recently received the Best Chapter Advisor Award from Pi Sigma Alpha, the national political science honor society. (Pictured serving as the university marshal during MBU’s 175th Commencement ceremony in 2017.)

Van Assendelft is the founding advisor for the society’s Alpha Kappa Gamma chapter at MBU, which she helped charter in 2014. Since then, Pi Sigma Alpha has become an active part of the MBU community, creating opportunities for students to understand and get engaged in the political process.

“The best part for me has been our participation in the Pi Sigma Alpha National Undergraduate Research Conference in Washington, D.C. each spring. Some of the best students in political science from across the country come together to present their research. 

“I am always so proud of how Mary Baldwin University students take full advantage of this opportunity. By taking juniors to support the seniors, students have two years to prepare themselves. Watching their transition from being nervous about what to expect the first year to owning the stage the second year and getting to know them so well during the process is what I love about what I do.”  

Last year, the chapter hosted a series of themed debate watch parties for the presidential primaries, combining fun activities with discussion of timely national issues. MBU’s chapter president, Francesca Bergeret ’20, applied for the chapter activity grant that provided snacks and supplies for each party.  

Members of MBU’s Pi Sigma Alpha chapter at debate watch parties on campus and the national student research conference in Washington, D.C. (Pictures are before the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Through van Assendelft’s political science class this semester, students have contributed to voter registration efforts in partnership with the Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement, and hosted the first-ever virtual debate watch parties on campus. 

They have also created a web hub geared specifically for the MBU student community — some of whom are voting for the very first time — to find objective and reliable information about the presidential election.

Van Assendelft is also lending her expertise to reporters covering the debate around Virginia Question 1 on the ballot this November (regarding whether the Constitution of Virginia should be amended to establish a redistricting commission) through the national Strategy Scholars Network.

In 2017–18, MBU’s Pi Sigma Alpha chapter launched the Model City Council Civic Engagement Project, which enabled students to attend Staunton City Council meetings, mentor high school students, host council members for events on campus, and stage a model city council at Staunton’s city hall. Their efforts to engage with local government were recognized with a national Best Chapter Award from Pi Sigma Alpha that year.

From the local to the national scene, Pi Sigma Alpha members also have the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., for the honor society’s annual student research conference. 

Dedicated to supporting undergraduate research, van Assendelft helps students prepare to present with practice sessions and consultations before the event. She has developed a model — now used by several other chapters — in which students are encouraged to attend in their junior year to acclimate to professional conferences and prepare to present in their senior year.

“Since we started the MBU chapter in 2014, we’ve had 36 student members. About a third of them have presented at the national conference and one, Elizabeth Bailey, was published in the Pi Sigma Alpha Undergraduate Research Journal.  

“Members of Pi Sigma Alpha have also been leaders on campus — Allie Ellmauer and Nichole Kennedy were the student leaders for the first Election Live Broadcast. Tamia Baker-Johnson was SGA President. A number have gone on to law school and/or graduate programs, including Francesca Bergeret, Brittany Kondratenko, Todd Mattox, Eshala Bunch, and Madeleine Stout. Pi Sigma Alpha students have been role models on campus, in the classroom, and beyond.”