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Bruin thrives at UCLA by combining academic studies with hands-on experienceBruin senior Wudia Kamara. (Photo provided by Ms. Kamara.)

Bruin thrives at UCLA by combining academic studies with hands-on experience

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

Bruin senior Wudia Kamara has pursued an amazingly broad range of opportunities inside and outside the classroom at UCLA, enabling her to build solid business skills while acquiring a comparative international perspective on economics and economic development.

UCLA International Institute, March 8, 2023 — Each year in honor of International Women’s Day, the UCLA International Institute interviews outstanding young women who will be the leaders of tomorrow. Spend any time with Wudia Kamara (UCLA 2023), and the quote of football coach Vince Lombadi comes to mind: “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.”

In her four years at UCLA, Kamara — who is completing a double major in economics and international development studies — has worked assiduously to acquire hands-on experience that enabled her to develop skills directly relevant to her academic studies and career aspirations.

Her drive as a Bruin becomes clearer when you realize that at age 16, she convinced her mother in Sierra Leone to allow her and a younger sister to move to the United States, where they were born, to finish their last years of high school (living with a guardian) and pursue higher education there.

“Growing up in Sierra Leone, I always wanted to go to college in the West because it has better universities, better educational opportunities,” she says. Already in a business economics track in high school at home, there was no question that she wanted to major in economics at college.

When she started at UCLA, says Kamara, “I started looking into a double major already in my freshman year [because] I wanted to answer the question: Why are some countries poor and some are rich?” The International Development Studies Program gave the young Bruin a broader look at economics — especially what the discipline in the West studies and quantifies — in a multidisciplinary curriculum that gave her deep exposure to the economic thinking and history of both the Global North and the Global South.

“I’ve learned that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model of development, as is widely believed,” she says. “It’s more sustainable for countries in the Global South to be reinforced by their own agency and to create change and solutions for themselves, rather than just adopt Western models — and Western polarization to a certain extent.

“Economics has been a really good way of applying quantitative analysis to development. Of course, it’s a whole different conversation in terms of understanding the repercussions of quantifying certain things and not others.

“For example, even though the measure of GDP has its limitations, it’s not a bad thing to learn about. It’s also been good to learn about what’s missing from GDP.”

Classes such as Decolonizing Political Economy: Colonialism and Development (INTLDV 140) and the History of Capitalism in the American Market (Econ 165) have broadened Kamara’s thinking about economic development. In addition to learning about the work of many economists from different countries, including Zambian Dambisa Moyo (author of “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa,” 2009), she has gained insights from comparative analysis, including how the South Korean “miracle” has been unable to be replicated elsewhere and the fact that deficits are perceived differently in the U.S. and Japanese economies.

“It’s been really helpful to see how economies work in countries that are not as dominant as the US; it’s not always as clear-cut a neoliberal structure as we see here.”

Apart from her studies, Kamara has consistently sought to develop skills in market research, economic analysis and financial management, as well as the soft skills of working in and leading groups.

The senior completed two competitive business- and leadership-oriented programs at UCLA — the Chancellor’s LINK Program and the Social Enterprise Academy — both of which guide small student cohorts in group projects with intensive mentorship, require participants to take a two-credit seminar course in each of winter and spring quarters, and build networks of mentors and peers.

The LINK program, says Kamara, “provided me the environment I needed to ignite the potential I had within me. I learned so much from the people who came to speak, but most importantly, I learned from my peers. They were truly some of the greatest minds at UCLA,” she says of her co-participants, who were (and are) headed toward careers in marketing, public health and the arts.

In the Social Enterprise Academy, which is co-administered by the UCLA economics department, Kamara joined a team that developed a business proposal and curriculum for a potential income-generating educational intervention for a nonprofit organization that works to prevent gang violence.

The Bruin senior has also served in student government (UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council) for three years. In her sophomore year, she worked as the assistant finance director in the office of USAC President Naomi Riley, as well as the student representative on the General Education and Governance Committee of the Academic Senate.

In her junior year, she began a two-year term on the ASUCLA Board of Directors, a position for which she successfully applied and interviewed. Now in her senior year, she currently co-chairs the ASUCLA student-majority board, after serving as chair last fall.

“[The ASUCLA] opportunity has been very unique for me,” says Kamara. “You get to advocate for students and work for a better community at UCLA and, as a member of the governing board of a 501(c)3 organization that generates over $100 million in revenue biennally, you get to do that through a social entrepreneur lens.

“People can think that the nonprofit world should only happen in a vacuum, as if you can’t mix revenue generation with something that’s very socially oriented. But the definition of social enterprise is literally the merging of those two things.” 

To develop better economic research skills, Kamara has worked for two years as a (mostly remote) research assistant for the Anderson Behavioral Lab, with summers devoted to internships and jobs (including a paid summer position at KPMG in Silicon Valley in summer 2022).

Research at the behavioral lab has been eye-opening for the Bruin, spanning research and data analytics on topics such as marketing, consumer behavior, organizational behavior and diversity in the workplace. One in-person behavioral research experiment proved the endowment effect that she had studied in a behavioral economics class, while her work on data coding Tweets for another project made her rethink the category of primary data.

“I think everyone who goes to UCLA should try to do research; it’s one of the things that should be on your bucket list. Some of these projects are things I’ve never done before, and you’re taught how to figure it out and learn on the spot,” she says.

In addition to taking martial arts and dance classes at UCLA Rec, Kamara’s social engagement on campus has included working as resident assistant in both a UCLA residential hall and a student apartment community. “As an RA, I am a mentor, an academic advisor, a building manager and resource guide all in one,” she says.

“I’m able to see some of the real problems that students face and try to support them. When we all meet on campus, or during class, it’s quite difficult for professors or even our peers to see us outside of our academic responsibilities. But in the residential communities, it’s a different point of view because you recognize individuals first as people, and then as students.

“I work on how best to support them to thrive as much as they can, and I think I’ve been able to foster a sense of community with so many students, all of them with diverse identities.”

After graduating in June, Kamara will begin to make her dream of a business career come true when she starts a full-time job as a consultant at KPMG. Her plan is to work for several years, then go to business school.

Kamara’s advice for high schoolers who want to attend UCLA? “Be realistic, but don’t be afraid to dream. It’s okay for other people to say no to you, but never do that to yourself. Just put yourself out there. If there’s anything that I've learned in the past four years at UCLA, it’s that every Bruin has a unique footprint.”