Where others see walls, she looks for bridges

Sarah Bernt, who graduated from Northeastern in 2019, has been selected for the prestigious and selective George J. Mitchell Scholarship, which sends future American leaders to the island of Ireland for a year of graduate study. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

There was something familiar about the murals and graffiti, says Sarah Bernt. “It just evokes something that I had seen before.”

Stretched across the Peace Wall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, were messages of harmony and love. Bernt, who graduated from Northeastern in 2019 with a degree in political science, was on a political tour of Belfast during a day trip from Dublin when the similarities struck her.

The artwork on the wall in Belfast reminded Bernt of sentiments of peace that melded with statements of resistance scrawled across the remnants of the Berlin Wall she had observed on a trip to Germany, and on the Palestinian side of the still-standing barrier along the Green Line between Israel and Palestine. Intrigued, Bernt decided she would have to return to Belfast for more than a day to learn more—and to see if the walls there hold any lessons about building bridges. Next year, she’ll be doing just that.

Bernt has been selected by the US-Ireland Alliance for the prestigious and selective George J. Mitchell Scholarship, which sends budding American leaders to the island of Ireland for a year of study. Beginning in September 2022, Bernt will study conflict resolution and reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin’s Belfast campus.

“Sarah was one of the brightest students I’ve ever taught in my entire career,” says Costas Panagopoulos, chair of the political science department at Northeastern. “I always expected that she would go on to do great things, and this is really just the beginning of that trajectory.”

Bernt is drawn to study particularly human aspects of political conflicts. Through a minor in psychology, she has long been fascinated by how people behave in extreme environments (one of her focuses in the minor was how astronauts live and work together in space).

“Political science is my first and foremost passion, and is what my career is primarily about,” Bernt says. “I see conflict studies as kind of the intersection of these two areas of interest. It’s politics, but it’s also about how people behave in extreme environments. And what can we learn about human nature from studying these environments?”

Bernt’s career in politics is already well underway. She has interned in the Washington, D.C. office of Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, and managed Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone’s successful reelection campaign. She currently works for the City of Somerville as the community engagement specialist and social media manager.

In early 2020, Bernt also sounded the alarm in Mayor Curtatone’s office that COVID-19 was coming, and it didn’t look good. She leveraged her connections to Northeastern’s world-renowned epidemiologists, namely Alessandro Vespignani, to bring the issue to the mayor’s attention. Bernt connected Curtatone with Vespignani, who shared yet-to-be-publicized models with the mayor.

Curtatone quickly realized the urgency of the situation, and mobilized his own network of mayors and town managers. Bernt helped the mayor organize regional meetings among the local government leaders, with epidemiologists and other public health experts. That grew into a formalized regional coalition to strategize how best to battle COVID-19.

“One of the things that distinguishes Sarah is the fact that she has not only strong analytical and intellectual skills but also that she has this real-world interest that allows her to apply those interests to important aspects of everyday society,” says Panagopoulos. “We are extremely proud of her in [the] political science [department.]”

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