Rock Ethics Institute Honors Penn State Students for Their Ethical Leadership
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Rock Ethics Institute is honored to announce the recipients of the 2023 Stand Up Awards: Emma Cihanowyz, a fourth-year student majoring in international politics and French; Taran Samarth, a fourth-year student majoring in political science, sociology, philosophy, and mathematics; and Maria Smereka-Hladio, a fourth-year student majoring in biology and Spanish.
Established in 2008, the Stand Up Awards recognize undergraduate students at Penn State who have demonstrated ethical leadership by standing up for a cause, idea or belief. Through honoring their courageous examples, the awards aim to inspire others to become ethical leaders. The awards are supported through a generous gift from Charles, Joan, and Emily Rolling.
“With compassion and grit, Emma, Taran, and Maria have dedicated themselves to understanding challenges facing their communities and developing just responses in close collaboration with those impacted,” said Ben Jones, assistant director of the Rock Ethics Institute. “As they prepare to graduate this spring, each of them leaves Penn State a better place than when they arrived because of their persistent and selfless advocacy.”
The ceremony to celebrate this year’s winners will take place on Tuesday, April 4, at 3:30 p.m. in Robb Hall of the Hintz Family Alumni Center. The ceremony also will be livestreamed on the Rock Ethics Institute’s website for those unable to join in person. To attend in person or virtually, please register beforehand.
Shortly after arriving at Penn State, Cihanowyz noticed an inequity on campus: the lack of free and accessible menstrual products. Not having this resource disadvantaged a significant portion of the student body. Rather than ignore it, she made it her goal to eradicate period poverty at Penn State. “This was an area where I could make concrete change and benefit generations of students long after I graduate,” Cihanowyz explained. “So during my four years, I focused my energies on studying this problem and figuring out how to solve it.”
She joined the Penn State chapter of Days for Girls, a global nonprofit that advances menstrual equity through advocacy and providing menstrual products to those at risk of missing school and other activities from lacking such resources. She has served on the executive board of Days for Girls at Penn State for four years and as its vice president of advocacy for the past two years. Through a 2021 survey, Days for Girls found that 13% of menstruators at Penn State had missed class due to lack of access to menstrual products. These data made clear that period poverty was a problem at Penn State that needed to be addressed. In response to advocacy by Cihanowyz and others, Penn State increased its funding for menstrual products to make them more accessible.
“What is remarkable about Emma is that, when she sets a goal for herself, it’s hard to find anyone as dedicated to achieving it,” said Erin Heidt-Forsythe, associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute. “As a student and activist, she develops a plan, sticks to it, and doesn’t let anything stand in her way.” Cihanowyz’s determination paid off. Her work has culminated in a proposal, under consideration from the Student Fee Board’s Equity Fund, for a renovation project that would make menstrual products free across campus.
“Taran is the type of ethical leader that this moment demands,” said Nora Van Horn, a 2022 Stand Up Award winner, when nominating them for this year’s award. “They harness the power of coalitional politics to build democratic capacity at a time when democracy is being stifled, unlocking opportunities for others to participate in creating a better world and grow into ethical leaders themselves.” In short, Samarth models the change they seek to achieve.
Deep commitments to democracy and accountability have guided Samarth’s advocacy while at Penn State. Both a gifted researcher and organizer, they have drawn on their diverse skillset to support Penn State Forward and other efforts to promote democratic practices, sustainability, and a more inclusive environment at the University. Their advocacy often has taken place behind the scenes. Being the focus of attention is not what motivates Samarth. Instead, what motivates them is coalitional work whose strength lies in the collective contributions of its members.
“Decision-making grounded in democratic practices yields better results,” said Samarth. “When more voices can contribute, we gain access to a wider range of informed insights and knowledge from below that can improve institutional policy. That’s why incorporating participatory practices is critical for institutional legitimacy, especially at Penn State.” Because of their passion for Penn State, Samarth has tirelessly strived for a university that reflects these values.
Smereka-Hladio recalls the day Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022: “I couldn’t sleep, like so many other Ukrainians around the world. I stayed up until four in the morning anxiously following the news and texting my family and fellow members of the Ukrainian Society at Penn State. I was horrified by the immense human suffering unfolding, but also knew that I had to act.”
Over the next year, she threw herself into helping the people of Ukraine and speaking out against the unjust war waged against them. As president of the Penn State Ukrainian Society, she organized rallies on campus in support of Ukraine. This work led to partnerships throughout the community and Penn State, including a joint rally for peace and human rights with the Iranian Student Association when mass protests for women’s rights spread in Iran.
Smereka-Hladio incorporated fundraising into these events to provide support to those impacted by war and violence. She expanded these efforts last summer by cofounding the Centre Coalition for Ukraine. Through local grants and donations, the coalition has raised tens of thousands of dollars to support refugees from Ukraine. Another cofounder of the coalition, Philip Burlingame, praised Smereka-Hladio for going above and beyond to assist refugees: “Fluent in Ukrainian, Maria has provided critically important translation services to refugees since their arrival in our community. With her leadership, we have helped refugees access U.S. government assistance, seek English language instruction and navigate services provided by the local school district.”
About the Rock Ethics Institute
The Rock Ethics Institute, which sponsors the Stand Up Awards, was established in 2001 through a $5 million gift from Doug and Julie Rock to the College of the Liberal Arts. The Institute’s mission is to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the University.