By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, June 4, 2020 — Two impressive seniors in the UCLA International Institute Class of 2020, both majoring in International Development Studies, graduate this June with Fulbright awards.
Christine Tran and Rowan Baker have won Fulbright teaching and research grants, respectively. Tran will teach English in Vietnam, while Baker will conduct research on the social and economic implications of glacial melt in the Altai Republic of the Russian Federation. While travel and other restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic may delay their schedules, the two seniors expect to be able begin using their Fulbright awards in 2021.
Development and migration
The awards are only the latest achievements in these busy students’ lives. Christine Tran, a first-generation college student who is finishing up a double major in International Development Studies (IDS) and Asian American Studies Programs, with a minor in public affairs, is planning to do a master’s in public policy in the future. First, however, she will spend a year in Vietnam.
“I am excited to explore my cultural roots and reconnect with my family that is still living in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam,” she says.
The oldest child of a low-income family, Tran discovered UCLA by chance and never looked back. “I chose UCLA because as soon as I stepped on the campus during a random visit, the lively and warm atmosphere — especially as I walked down Bruin Walk and was being bombarded by flyers — felt like the right place for me,” she shares.
“I saw myself at UCLA and felt that the bubbly and warm atmosphere fit well with who I am,” she says. Tram chose her double major, she says, because she wanted to understand the relationship between international development and migration.
“International development studies allowed me to understand how social, political and economic forces produced our current world,” she explains, “and Asia American studies gave me a more intimate and personal insight into communities that are affected by international development, such as the Asian American community.”
Over the course of her undergraduate education, Tran studied abroad in Thailand for a semester as a Gilman Scholar (a U.S. State Department scholarship), participated in student government in the USAC External Vice President’s Office (where she worked to prevent an announced tuition hike in 2018) and worked as a camp counselor and rock-climbing specialist for UCLA Unicamp.
Among her other campus engagements, she worked for two years at UCLA Student Legal Services, interned at the nongovernmental organization Asian Americans Advancing Social Justice and spent a year as an undergraduate researcher at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women.
Development and the environment
Rowan Baker is completing a double B.A. in IDS and Russian Studies, with a concentration in environmental science. Her future plans include a Ph.D. in geography and the environment and working as a research consultant for the U.S. government. She will use her Fulbright award to conduct an ethnographic project in Altai, based on research she did in Kazakhstan in 2018–19. She begins preliminary research on the project this summer with support from an honors summer stipend.
Rowan Baker (second from right at table) judging a conference on horse ancestry in Kazakstan, May 2019. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Baker.)
Prior to enrolling at UCLA, Baker spent a year studying Russian at the State Pedagogical Institute of the Republic of Moldova courtesy of a National Security Language Institute for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarship. It was during that year that a four-year college education first became a possibility in her eyes.
“I come from a small, rural community in Northern California, about six hours north of San Francisco,” she says. “Receiving that scholarship really changed my life. I made lifelong friends who helped me through the college application process, as well as learn about UCLA’s Russian Flagship program. After doing some more research on the program, as well as UCLA’s international development major, I knew that I wanted to come here!”
As a student in the UCLA Russian Flagship Program, Baker spent a summer in a Russian-language study abroad program at Tbilisi State University (Republic of Georgia) and an academic year at Kazakh National University (Kazakhstan). While in Kazakhstan, she completed a research project on water resource management and international development in Central Asia.
“Central Asia is one of the most water-dependent regions in the world, with the vast majority of its water source stemming from glacial melt,” says Baker. “However, the Central Asian water crisis is one of the least researched future disasters of modern development and climate studies.”
Her Fulbright-supported project in the Altai Republic will, she explains, “utilize focus group interviews and ethnographic data collection, as well as survey data collection, GIS analysis of glacier recession and monitoring.” And she has big plans to assist her female peers in the Central Asia region to hone their English language skills, acquire data skills and create a network of researchers across the U.S., Kazakhstan and beyond who are interested in solving issues related to climate change.
Baker’s studies have been supported by a prodigious number competitive fellowships and research grants, including a Critical Language Scholarship (U.S. Department of State), a David L. Boren Scholarship for intensive language study (National Security Education Program) and a Suzan and Terry Kramer Internship Abroad Scholarship (UCLA).
November 2019. Rowan Baker (center) at a Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum meeting in Tyumen, Rusia, with Skolkova representatives
to discuss the potential of Arctic wind energy. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Baker.)
Her extracurricular activities have also been legion, spanning the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum, the Caucasus Research Resource Center in Tbilisi, Georgia, the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, the UCLA Undergraduate Student Initiated Education program and the Virtual Student Federal Service Program.
Departing Bruins offer advice to future IDS majors
Both graduating seniors took time to reflect on their years at UCLA.
Says Tran, “I enjoyed meeting so many different types of people at UCLA. Every day was an opportunity to meet someone new. All the amazing people here really expanded my personal perspectives and politics.
“It was a privilege to be able to engage with people I met in my class, in student organizations and those I randomly talked to on Bruin Walk,” she continues. “I also really enjoyed the classes I took at UCLA with professors who helped me developed a strong lens in critical race theory.”
In addition to developing a love of outdoors through UCLA Unicamp and an abiding interest in advocacy and policy work, Tran credits UCLA’s Wooden Athletic Center for giving her a love of yoga. For Tran, being a Bruin also means a love of the physical campus itself.
Janss Steps at UCLA. (Photo: UCLA.)
“I really enjoyed sitting and relaxing on Janss Steps when it was a bright and sunny day, and getting to share that with so many people around me — it's a really peaceful sight that has brought me so much happiness,” she shares.
For incoming Bruins interested in international development, Tran suggests, “Take advantage of how interdisciplinary the IDS program is! It really allowed me to take courses from so many different departments, which I found to be the best part of the major, as I was exposed to many different and similar ideas from vastly different perspectives!”
For Baker, studying at UCLA allowed her to unite several interests. “Coming from a below-the-poverty-line background made me well aware of the importance of welfare long before moving to Moldova [for my gap year],” she says. “But living in Chisinau [the capital of Moldova] for a year actualized for me the consequences of what happens when a government welfare system is not in place and international organizations come in as a substitute.
“I wanted to learn more about these consequences from the local and international perspective,” recounts Baker.
“And having grown up in a forest, I had always loved the natural world, but I wasn’t sure how to combine my interests in development and the environment,” she says. “Researching Central Asia’s environmental concerns made it clear that this was possible and needed.”
Baker’s advice for incoming IDS students is threefold: become fluent in a language, don’t stop at the required two years of study; gain a technical skill (in her case, GIS and RStudio skills) and apply it to a project; and be prepared to throw your assumptions about a geographic region out the window.
“Go! Talk to people! And most importantly, gain a new perspective!” Baker urges students. “There isn’t nearly enough of this in the international development sphere, and it is up to our generation to start changing this!