By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, May 30, 2017 — On May 17th, the UCLA International Institute held an end of the year reception honoring outstanding seniors majoring and minoring in international development, global health, global studies and area studies for their scholarship and service. Honorees also had the opportunity to give short presentations on their experiences conducting international research over the course of the last year as well as their leadership and community service projects throughout their careers at UCLA. Fellow UCLA International Institute students joined their peers to celebrate their achievements, as well as to ask questions and receive advice regarding embarking on their own internationally focused projects.
Partnering with professors for international research
The first panel featured international development students who had each partnered with a UCLA faculty member to design and conduct their own international research through the departmental honors program. Claire Pfitzinger's research explored the emerging African beer market and how it correlates to development in Sub-Saharan Africa, while Morgan Rose, another panelist, researched the holistic impact of social enterprise systems on developing communities. Aleksija Vujicic also presented on her research examining the connection between the Saudi Arabian-Iranian proxy conflict and sectarian conflicts in Lebanon. After describing their own individual projects, the presenters briefly discussed the most satisfying and challenging aspects of conducting independent research.
“What I found most rewarding about this project was working with Professor [Michael] Lofchie,” said Pfitzinger. “Our work researching together has helped me form more questions on my topic and we developed a great relationship.” Her fellow panelists urged the students not to choose their advisors and topics lightly and to keep in mind the sheer length of the research paper. “I don't think many of us have had to tackle something of this size before,” said Vujicic. “I think learning how to do that—being able to organize and structure things on a large scale—is essential to entering the workforce in the future.”
Exploring topics around the world
The next panel brought together students majoring in global studies and area studies and minoring in global health. Through study abroad experiences, community-oriented internships in Los Angeles and partnerships with UCLA professors, each of the presenters was able to design and conduct their own research project. In an analysis of Hollywood, Jonathan Liu, a global studies major, discussed the negative effects of orientalism in cinema on Asian Americans. Jesse Chen, also from global studies, discussed how her research paper, originally intended to focus on Chinese diplomacy, evolved into a complex research project which questioned Taiwanese identity in a rapidly changing and increasingly globalized world. Global health minor, Lizet Pantoja-Perez, interviewed residents of several Los Angeles neighborhoods for her project which focused on the effects of urban oil drilling in the city, while Danielle Stork‘s development research brought her all the way to Tanzania for a 16 week study abroad and homestay program complementing her studies at UCLA as an African and Middle Eastern studies major.
Like prior panelists, the presenters had words of wisdom for the students hoping to follow in their footsteps. “Find your advisor as early as possible,” said Jonathan Liu. He also recommended that students outline and plan far in advance while writing their senior theses. “That being said, don't restrict yourself. Don't put yourself in a box, but make sure you're coherent in communicating what you want to say,” said Liu. Jessie Chen had advice for students who were undecided on their research topics. “Go with your gut instinct when choosing [your topic],” she said. “You know what you like and what you want to research.”
Activism on campus and abroad
The final panel showcased international development studies students whose passion for development spurred activism and leadership on campus and abroad. “Seeing all of these different perspectives and being on the ground, talking to people, is incredible,“ said Sheridan Bowers, as she described her experience volunteering with development projects in Ecuador, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Uganda. In addition to her work abroad, Bowers is the co-president of the UCLA Flying Samaritans, a group of UCLA students who run a free medical clinic in Baja California, Mexico. “Here's my advice for prospective IDS students: go somewhere you never expected to go and stay there for as long as you possibly can,” she said.
“I really appreciated the opportunity to work within different institutions,” said Emily Taing, whose research in Cambodia focused on efforts to help victims of sex trafficking become more financially literate. “I was able to interview government officials and nonprofit workers at various levels and better understand the workings of aid projects,” said Taing. “It was an eye-opening experience. I'm half-Cambodian, so my entire academic journey has been very personal,” she explained. As she concluded, Taing urged her fellow students to also personalize their senior projects.
Jessa Culver, the recipient of the 2017 Activist Award, spoke last. The award is presented annually to students who demonstrate, through their work in local, national, or international organizations, their commitment to making a difference on issues linked to international development. Culver discussed a seminar on poverty in Latin America taken during her first quarter at UCLA which sparked her interest in international development. “The idea that people in poor socioeconomic conditions had their health determined by their social status or their gender and by other poverty-related factors was insane to think about,” she said.
After multiple summers spent abroad, Culver had a more clear idea of what she hoped to achieve by working in international development. “[I wanted] to engage in development work in a way that's not perpetuating the asymmetrical relationships that have been created from past projects,” she said. Culver brought this vision to the UCLA campus, where she co-founded both the UCLA Global Development Lab and the UCLA Global Health Coalition. She has also worked with the Blum Center on Poverty and Health in Latin America and interned for the Panagora Group through UCLA's CAPP Quarter in Washington program.
“Finally, I would say that it's important to find experiences like these, which really do supplement the classes,” said Culver to the crowd of students planning on undertaking research projects in the future. “The classes here are so incredible and the theories are essential, but it's invaluable to take what you learned in a class and be able to go: ‘I saw that in the field,'” she concluded.