Hiram College

Zack Sunderman ’12 recently received the honor of Top Undergraduate Paper at the 2011 Ohio Communication Association Conference.

Sunderman, a Weekend College student, originally wrote the paper “Rhetorical Justice: Bush Administration Fear Appeals and the Justification of Human Rights Violations Committed by the United States” for his class, Political and Popular Representations of War, taught by Cyndy Willis-Chun, assistant professor of communication.

But knowing his future goals – and that the paper had a great chance to be accepted into the conference – Willis-Chun encouraged him to submit it. Not only was he accepted, but he earned the honor of “Top Undergraduate Paper.”

The paper Sunderman presented at the conference on Oct. 1-2, at the University of Findlay, explored speeches by former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney surrounding Guantanamo Bay and the War on Terror.

“A lot of the policies they’ve used in doing this have been illegal, or at least immoral, and are plainly against international human rights standards,”  he said. “I was basically looking to see how did they justify that, how did they sell that to the public.

“And I found that they seized a lot on fear. The gist of it would be, ‘If we don’t do this, we’re all gonna die.’ That’s how they approached it. So I did an analysis of those two speeches, and ways that fear was used to justify what would never normally be considered okay.”

This topic lies within Sunderman’s main interests, which are political, commercial and religious influential communication. He is writing his senior seminar paper on religious attack ads used in the 2010 Ohio state treasurer race. He said much of his undergraduate work has been influenced by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but expects to broaden his research as he goes on to graduate school.

“I was in high school when 9/11 happened,” he said. “I feel like it didn’t have that big of an impact on me, but the more I see how it’s affected how politics have worked, and how people have talked in the media, and how the public has perceived this whole thing, it’s really started to interest me even more.”

Sunderman will graduate from Hiram in May 2012 with a degree in social sciences and concentration in communication. He hopes to go on to earn his Ph.D. in rhetorical communication after taking about a year off, and then teach at the college level. Willis-Chun said it’s important for future professors to get experience presenting their work early on, and that it is partially the reason she encouraged him to do it.

Jon Gordon, associate professor of communication, has also taught Sunderman in communication courses, and said his strength lies in his ability to relate information in one subject to topics across the board – the heart of the liberal arts education Hiram values.

“He just gets it,” Gordon said. “He’s able to pull things from many different backgrounds.”

Willis-Chun said Sunderman’s success in the classroom is especially notable because he has maintained a full time job throughout his studies. Sunderman, who lives in Warren, works as a paralegal in Mentor. Until this semester, he worked five days a week, and then attended class at Hiram on the weekends. That required about three hours of driving each day of the week, and he admits he doesn’t know how he kept up with everything.

“I guess I just really care about getting this done, I really want to do it, and I’m really driven to do it well,” he said. “If I’m here, I’m not going to cut corners. I have to get it done.”

This semester, he decided to complete a senior seminar. This research-intensive course is required for traditional undergraduates, but not Weekend College students; however, Sunderman wanted to do take it anyway. That required him to attend class during the week and take two days off work. He admits it was a tough decision, but one that he knew would benefit him in the future. He credits the Weekend College’s personal touch for allowing him to succeed in his chosen path.

“I always feel like someone knows what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and what I should be doing next,” he said. “I just feel like it matters that I’m here.”