Rhodes Scholar Sees the Human Face in Poverty in India
Elizavida Fouksman investigated human rights abuses in rural India during her junior year, then returned after graduation to inspire social activism. She is UCLA's 12th Rhodes Scholar.
Published: Monday, November 30, 2009
There are way too many students who want to go to law school to make money. She's very different from that.
By Cynthia Lee for UCLA Today
ON A CAMPUS where many students embrace a diversity of cultures, serve the underprivileged and excel academically, Elizavida Fouksman managed to catch the eye of her professors by doing it all — and more.
She made a documentary film about homeless teenagers living in San Francisco. She's fluent in Russian and speaks some French. She has trekked in the Himalayas and spent semesters studying in Paris and Delhi. Working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) in rural India during her junior year at UCLA, she investigated human rights abuses against child laborers as young as 10.
And as a UCLA student, she helped victims of human trafficking in Los Angeles. After graduating summa cum laude from UCLA in June 2008, she returned to India to create programs that inspired poor college students from rural villages to become social activists.
Burnishing her resume and reputation even further is this: On Nov. 21, officials with the Rhodes Trust announced that Fouksman has been selected as a Rhodes Scholar, one of 32 American women and men to win "the oldest and best known award for international study, and arguably the most famous academic award available to American college graduates," said American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust Elliot Gerson.
UCLA's 12th Rhodes Scholar, Fouksman, 23, who majored in history and minored in global studies and Russian literature, will enter Oxford in October 2010 to study international development with the goal of completing the equivalent of a master's or perhaps a Ph.D. Her scholarship will cover all expenses for up to three years of study at Oxford, with the possibility of extending to a fourth year.
This marks the first time UCLA has had back-to-back Rhodes Scholars. In 2008, Scott Hugo, a history and political science major, and Christopher Joseph, a summa cum laude graduate in geography, also won the prestigious scholarship.
"I'm still in disbelief," said Fouksman, a day before she left her home in Emerald Hills in the San Francisco Bay Area for a well-deserved vacation to Cambodia. "I really wanted to study development at Oxford. It has a great two-year program that will allow me more time to pursue my studies. And I think it will be fascinating to live in England and learn about a new culture."
Her goal? "I would like to focus on melding my practical experiences with my academic research," said Fouksman, who was born in Russia and emigrated with her family when she was 8 to California.
A volunteering spirit
Fouksman's drive to grow academically after coming face-to-face with poverty and hardship in rural India is a mark of her intellectual maturity, a quality that history Professor Patrick Geary said he saw in her early in her UCLA career when she took his class in the history of memory. That maturity, reflected in her scholarship, was "quite extraordinary for an undergraduate."
"She's someone who is actually quite enterprising and has very wide interests," said Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a history professor, holder of the Navin and Pratima Doshi Chair of Indian History, and founding director of the Center for India and South Asia. He was the thesis adviser for her history honors research paper.
"There are way too many students who want to go to law school to make money. She's very different from that," he said. Right from the start, she exhibited an interest in doing volunteer work in a developing country and not just approaching issues in the abstract, he said. "She wanted to see the human face in this."
Fouksman chose to do that in India in her junior year and "fell in love," she said, with the country and its people when she studied at the University of Delhi. "It was a really moving experience for me. After the semester was over, I didn't want to leave." So she got an internship for three months with an NGO based in Chhattisgarh, a state in central India.
Working for the Forum for Fact-finding, Documentation and Advocacy, she became a human rights researcher, going into Indian villages to gather data on child labor rights and to interview girls as young as 10 who worked as dancers for traveling folk opera troupes.
"My job was to see if they were being exploited in any way — physically, sexually, mentally — and whether they received fair pay," she recalled. There were human rights abuses, she found. "But at the same time, I learned there were few economic alternatives for these girls and their families. It had a lot to do with economic necessity."
Back to the villages of India
After returning to UCLA and graduating, she went back to India, this time as a Global Exchange Fellow under the Massachusetts-based Deshpande Foundation, a leading philanthropic organization that, among its many programs, supports young professionals who work with NGOs in India in the fields of agriculture, livelihood, education and health.
Fouksman joined the staff of Vidya Poshak, an NGO started by a group of college professors in 2001 in the Indian state of Karnataka, to support impoverished young people by providing them with college scholarships, career advice, textbooks, and training in English and computer skills.
"Many were not simply first-generation college graduates," she explained in a blog, "but were first-generation literate." Her task was to create and coordinate programs that would motivate these disadvantaged college students to become involved in social activism.
"In the states, many college students are involved in community service," she explained. "That culture isn't there in rural India. So it was my job to get these college students feeling excited and empowered about becoming activists in their own communities — it could be as simple as organizing a no-littering campaign."
The kitchen education
To motivate students, she realized, "I had to know them and learn about their culture. It was a very humbling experience for me. I think I was impacted more than I impacted them."
Able to speak basic Kannada and Hindi, she became the only Fellow living in the small town of Dharwad, where she managed to build a network of local friends and acquaintances. After accepting invitations into their homes for a meal, Fouksman discovered the best way to break through the stilted formality of being treated as a guest was to ask her hosts for cooking lessons. "This was the perfect solution," she wrote in her blog. "Cooking somehow creates a link between me and the women of the house, bringing me in from the realm of the 'foreigner' to that of a daughter or little sister who wants to learn and all too frequently makes funny mistakes along the way."
The villagers she met radiated warmth and welcome. "My time spent in villages has been some of the most eye-opening and mind-expanding here," she blogged.
When she returned from India this year, she spoke with Professor Geary about her desire to connect her fieldwork with academic endeavors. "She came back from India and decided if she was going to be a change agent in an emerging society, it wasn't just enough to get field experience. She felt that what she needed was more education," Geary said. "She recognized that the intellectual rigor of an advanced education is necessary to really tackle problems."
The Rhodes Scholarship will put her on that path.
"The Rhodes is not designed for someone who will spend most of his or her life in a library or archives," Geary said. "It's designed for people who will take a leadership role, whether it's in the academe, private industry or in an NGO. And I'm delighted that the Rhodes Trust identified her as a young person who combines both scholarship and leadership."