American studies students receive Graduate School awards

Side by side headshots of Timothy D. Smith and Maria Rovito

Two Penn State Harrisburg doctoral students, Timothy D. Smith and Maria Rovito, are among recipients of Penn State’s most prestigious annual graduate student recognition awards, administered by the Graduate School in collaboration with several Penn State units.

Credit: Sharon Siegfried

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Two doctoral students in Penn State Harrisburg’s American studies program have received 2024 graduate student awards, prestigious University-wide recognition given by the Graduate School.

Maria Rovito won the 2023-24 Alumni Association Dissertation Award, while Timothy D. Smith received the Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award.

Personal health journey sparks dissertation

Rovito, who will graduate in May, studies the history and cultural representations of endometriosis. Her personal journey — being diagnosed with the condition during her first year of doctoral studies — is woven into her dissertation, which looks at the history of endometriosis from ancient Egypt to the present, where her research has found misogyny and racism in the treatment of the condition.

As a recipient of a Northeast Modern Language Association fellowship, Rovito traveled to medical archives around the country for her research and found links to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, an unscientific and racism-linked movement to “improve” the human race.

“White, upper-class women with endometriosis were told to have children in order to ‘cure’ their disease, while Black and lower-class women were gaslit by these doctors. This still occurs today,” she said.

Rovito entered the doctoral program with a background in American literature. She discovered her dissertation topic while trying to research her own illness.

“The more I did research about what was happening to me and my own health … the more I was able to see the scholarship on the disease in cultural and historical terms,” she said.

Receiving the dissertation award “is a validation of the pain I went through,” Rovito said.

Striving to be a student-centered educator

Smith received the Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award. As he pursues his doctorate in American studies, he teaches courses on topics including history, composition and communication.

“What’s important to me is investing in students, so getting that kind of feedback from students and being recognized for it means a lot,” Smith said.

He started in the doctoral program in 2020, a year the COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for students and teachers alike as they adapted to online learning.

“It’s just really rewarding to be recognized for all that hard work that we put in and the great classes we were able to still have during the pandemic,” he said. “It’s very affirming to all the time and investment I put into trying to be a student-centered educator.”

Smith is working on his dissertation, which focuses on the political history and visual culture of 19th Century United States, with an emphasis on editorial caricature. He’s also excited to be developing a history of technology course that he will teach next fall.

He likes to see students learning, he said, and he enjoys learning right along with them, having collaborative discussions and getting to know them.

“The thing that excites me the most is seeing them succeed,” he said.