A global studies program that offers “best possible experience for students”
UCLA professor Maggie Peters, chair of the global studies program. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

A global studies program that offers “best possible experience for students”

Maggie Peters, an associate professor of political science whose research focuses on migration, is the new chair of the International Institute's global studies program.

“In the past, people assumed migrants were emigrating here for jobs — which somehow makes migrants seem more like voluntary economic migrants — rather than asking, 'What does work mean?' It's more than work as a value in a capitalist society, it means being able to take care of oneself and have self-determination.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, September 20, 2021 — Associate Professor of Political Science Maggie Peters became chair of the International Institute’s global studies program in July; she has been teaching in the program since 2017.

“Global studies students are definitely more self-reliant than most students,” she says, “especially when it comes to their theses.”

“You get really great undergraduates who ask you questions that make you reflect on your assumptions, or the assumptions of the literature you are teaching. That’s one of the nice things of working with very smart young people who are really interested in the topic.”

The interdisciplinary global studies program, which offers a major and a minor, focuses on globalization and the connections among people across the world that transcend geographic and political boundaries. Students learn how international markets work, how the nation state and the international system interact and engage with nonstate actors and how the interaction between local and transnational cultures impacts societies worldwide.

Teaching as part of a relatively new team

Peters, who has a joint appointment to the International Institute and the department of political science, is part of a small cohort of institute faculty who teach the majority of global studies courses. These faculty — which include Hannah Appel (anthropology), Laurie Hart (anthropology), Shaina Potts (geography) and Eric Min (political science) — all joined UCLA only within the last six years.

“We are really a new group and hope to bring new ideas to the program, which is approaching its latest eight-year review,” remarks Peters. “We are rethinking among ourselves what global studies means, what students want to get out the program and what things will be most useful to them.”

Professor Peters teaching a global studies class. (Photo: Yuri Sakakibara/ UCLA.) Peters currently teaches two regular courses for the program: “Globalization: Markets and Resources” (one of three required courses for majors) and a senior seminar on refugee politics, which takes a comparative look at refugee issues in the Global South and Global North.

The first course, she says, tends to scare students because she employs economic graphs in her lectures. “Students sort of freak out about those graphs, but I never test them on that — it’s just that basic economics are needed to understand how global markets work,’” she laughs. (Note to students: don’t worry about the graphs!)

Peters particularly enjoys the global studies seminar due to its smaller size and more interactive discussions. “I’ve been teaching the seminar for a few years and, unfortunately for the world, every time I’ve taught it, the topic of refugees has been a really important issue,” she says.

“Today, we are seeing people fleeing Afghanistan, which again brings up questions of how you help refugees, where you help them, who helps them and how long they will stay. I’m hoping to work with a local refugee resettlement agency this year and devise a service learning project for students because I think that would be really valuable for them.”

One thing students in the course discover is that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention (and its 1967 Protocol) are based on the events of World War II. “The definition of refugee in the convention really doesn’t cover what’s going on today, such as people fleeing the economic collapse of Venezuela, gang violence in Central America or climate disasters,” explains Peters.

Looking at multiple aspects of migration

As a scholar and professor, Peters focuses on multiple aspects of migration politics. She is an active member of the Center for the Study of International Migration at the International Institute, which regularly convenes UCLA scholars from across campus who conduct research on migration.

“It’s a fabulous group of people who are really interested in migration, but use different disciplinary lenses,” says Peters. “I have learned a lot from other faculty at the center.”

Her first book, “Trading Barriers: Immigration and the Remaking of Globalization” (Princeton, 2017), received the APSA-IPSA (American Political Science Association–International Political Science Association) Theodore J. Lowi award for best first book, as well as book awards from the International Political Economy and Ethnicity, Nationalism and Migration sections of the International Studies Association and the Migration and Citizenship section of APSA.

The book examined 100 years of data on the relationship between free trade and migration and came to a seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion. Whereas trade restrictions have historically incentivized businesses to encourage immigration in order to attract low-skilled labor, free trade — one of the defining elements of globalization — forces firms to compete on price and drives the production of labor-intensive goods to countries with the lowest labor costs, which diminishes business support for open immigration policies in countries with higher labor costs.

For the past several years, Peters has been hard at work on two large-scale collaborative projects. The first considers the impact of emigration on authoritarian stability and democratic change in sending states; the second investigates the motivations of contemporary residents of and refugees from Syria, Venezuela and Central America with respect to their choices to stay or leave and, if they choose to leave, when and where to leave and when to return.

“We’re looking at people who have left three very different crises: civil war in Syria; economic collapse and some political unrest in Venezuela; and a combination of gang violence, political unrest, economic circumstances and climate change in Central America,” explains the scholar.

“Our main research question is: 'How do internal values like nationalism, as well as concerns about dignity, affect people’s choices of when and where to migrate?'” In particular, the research looks at how these refugees often leave their countries in order to fight for the possibility of a more dignified life back home or to escape conditions that preclude a dignified life.

Working through local partners and survey companies, Peters and her co-authors have already conducted surveys of Syrians in Syria and Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon. Currently, they are surveying Venezuelan refugees in Venezuela and Colombia, as well Colombians themselves (i.e., their views of Venezuelan refugees).

Soon, Peters and Yang-Yang Zhou (University of British Columbia) will begin a third phase of the study: a survey of Central Americans in their own countries and Central American refugees in Mexico. This research phase will be funded by a generous National Science Foundation grant of roughly $450,000, which was awarded this past August.

Work as the foundation of dignity and self-determination

“In the past, people assumed migrants were emigrating here for jobs — which somehow makes migrants seem more like voluntary economic migrants — rather than asking, “What does work mean?’” said Peters.

“It’s more than work as a value in a capitalist society, it means being able to take care of oneself and have self-determination. You can imagine that if you go through one of these crises, you lose a lot of self-determination because you have been forced by events. So it’s not necessarily, ‘I want to work because I think work is notably good,’ but ‘I want to work so I don’t have to rely on other people.’”

For Syrian refugees, she says, Turkey (unlike Lebanon) has been a generally positive place of resettlement because Syrians can go to school and are permitted to work. Many Syrian refugees in Turkey are not motivated to go to Germany despite enticing economic opportunities due to cultural differences, the risk of being resettled in small towns and long delays before receiving a work authorization, during which they must live on welfare.

In Colombia, Venezuelan refugees have been given the right to work and widespread anti-refugee sentiment has been conspicuously absent — even during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, says the UCLA professor, most Venezuelan refugees there are not pushing to move on to the U.S. or other countries.

With respect to the U.S., comment Peters, “We’ve never had a great record on refugees. We were better during the Cold War, when refugees were fleeing communist countries, because we considered that an opportunity to discredit communist ideology. But that kind of openness broke down after the end of the Cold War. Even then, people who fled right-wing dictatorships never got the same kind of help as those fleeing communist dictatorships.”