UCLA International Institute, June 17, 2019 — Among the roughly 228 students graduating in 2019 with UCLA International Institute majors, two worked at the institute over the past year: Kyilah Terry and Maria Amaya Morfin. The seniors became friends while working on their senior honors research papers, which they presented at Institute’s annual Going Global Conference in April and again during UCLA Undergraduate Research Week 2019 in late May.
Both young women participated in the UCLA International Institute Commencement on Saturday June 15, 2019; Kyilah has now graduated and Maria finishes up her final course credits this fall.
Finding a compelling academic interest
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Kyilah Terry grew up with a single mother, an immigrant grandmother and two younger siblings. She came to UCLA on a full scholarship to study marine biology, but after a year and a half, decided that the field was not for her.
“Fortunately, concomitant with interning and taking marine biology classes, I discovered that I had an aptitude for language learning, especially German,” she says. But it was a personal discovery that led her to declare a new major at the International Institute.
“One day, while telling my grandmother about my success in German, I learned that she had emigrated from Switzerland as a political refugee in the 1960s,” comments Kyilah. “My entire life I had been learning about my African American heritage, not knowing that I had a completely other side.
“I finished the three-quarter language requirement in German, but after discovering this other identity, I decided that I needed to explore it, so I enrolled in German 4–6 and declared a European Studies major,” she recounts.
Kyilah presents her research project, "The Rise of Right-Wing Populism in Germany and the Effect
on Immigration" during Undergraduate Research Week.
“As a black woman studying European Studies, the benefits for myself and others are limitless,” says Kyilah. “I was able to approach topics in European history from a new perspective, and I hope that the other students in my courses gained valuable insights.”
Kyilah went on to do independent research and write a senior honors paper on populism and the AfD Party in Germany. She begins an M.A. in European Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service this fall. “My overall goal in this field is to prevent past atrocities from recurring and harnessing Europe’s status as an international power to correct global injustices,” she notes.
Over the medium term, Kyilah hopes to travel to Germany and work for an inter-governmental agency that deals with refugees and asylum seekers, and perhaps even land a position with the federal German parliament. “After a few years abroad and sufficient work experience,” she shares, “I hope to get a doctorate in international relations.”
Maria Amaya Morfin is a first-generation college student. Born in Mexico, she spent the second half of her childhood in Tulare, California, with her parents and three siblings. “Since I was a young age, I knew that I wanted to pursue a university degree,” she says. UCLA was her dream school, a dream that she fulfilled with the support of her parents.
“I fell in love with the diversity of cultures and languages in Los Angeles,” continues Maria. “UCLA was not only a prestigious institution, but it also offered hundreds of majors and research opportunities. Plus its campus is located in the heart of the city, close to museums, beaches and major cultural centers,” she adds. It was UCLA Bruin Day, when accepted applicants are welcomed to campus, that finalized her decision to enroll.
“Growing up impoverished in a developing country led me to develop a keen interest in the International Development Studies (IDS) major,” explains Maria. “It also gave me a strong desire to hone my skills in identifying possible solutions that could help decrease the economic gap in developing countries.
“My parents were farmers in my home country of Mexico and I grew up watching them toil in the fields, working long hours and barely earning enough to cover the cost of basic necessities," she recounts.
Maria presents her research project, "Educational Development in Mexico: The Role of Social Capital"
during Undergraduate Research Week.
“This major allowed me to incorporate my own experience of living in poverty, enabling me to develop long-term solutions that could help individuals in my same situation escape the poverty cycle,” she continues. In fact, her senior honors research paper examined why students in Mexico fail to complete secondary and tertiary education, proposing a program that would fund community projects in students’ home towns while they are students. The program would not only show students direct benefits of their education, but also build community capital.
All pictures in text by Peggy McInerny. This article was published on June 17, 2019, and updated on June 19.
As for the future, Maria hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in global health, geography or public affairs. “I hope to one day work for an international organization such as the United Nations or non-profit organizations and help provide platforms for marginalized communities in the U.S. and in Latin America,” she says. At present, she is beginning to study for the GRE and evaluating graduate programs, laying the groundwork for her next move following her graduation in December.
Lessons and advice for incoming students
“The biggest lesson that I learned as an undergrad is not to use another person’s success as your yardstick,” says Kyilah. “I had to learn to go at my own pace and understand what will be, will be. Once I adopted this mentality, I enjoyed my classes more, my friendships became stronger and I found my own path.
“As for advice,” remarks Kyilah, “I suggest being open-minded about your time here at UCLA, especially regarding your major. You are experiencing some of the most formative years of your life; if you go your entire four years here not doubting the world and the path you think you want for yourself, then you haven’t really experienced college or life.
“I highly recommend drawing outside of the lines,” adds the Chicago native, “Meaning, go where you are uncomfortable and where you never imagined you would be. I am pursuing an international relations masters in the number one school for international relations and a well-paying career based on a class that I took for a minor — which I did not even declare until my senior year — and things could not have turned out better!”
Maria notes, “Joining organizations not only helped me discover new interests, it also helped me find a community and valuable friendships.
“Sometimes it becomes very difficult to balance your academic work, school involvement and social life,” she adds, “but it is important to explore new interests and find a strong community that will support you during your difficult times in your college career.
“I would also advise future students to take advantage of research opportunities,” says the IDS senior. “You will gain a little more expertise in a topic that interests you and have prior experience when you conduct research as a graduate student or in a future career.
“As a low-income immigrant I had times when I felt like I did not belong in this institution — lost, alone and without guidance. But I decided to look at the positive experiences and difficult situations I’ve overcome,” stresses Maria. “You might feel like giving up, but you have to remember that you earned your place at UCLA for a reason: because of your hard work and dedication.”