All-UCLA graduate conference to combine academic and activist goals
Conference organizer Erik Pena (UCLA B.A. 2012, M.A. 2014). (Photo: Catherine Schuknecht/ UCLA.)

All-UCLA graduate conference to combine academic and activist goals

The first UCLA International Institute Graduate Student Conference — the brainchild of M.A. student Erik Pena — will take place May 16, 2014, at Ackerman Student Union.

by Catherine Schuknecht

International Institute, May 7, 2014 — Latin American Studies graduate student Erik Pena is organizing the first annual UCLA International Institute Graduate Student Conference, to take place on Friday, May 16. 

The conference will aim “to contribute to academia,” said Pena, and at the same time “make a true direct difference in the lives of people.” The event is supported by the Interdepartmental Degree Programs, UCLA International Institute, UCLA Graduate Student Association and UCLA Social Sciences Council.

Pena completed an undergraduate degree in history and political science at UCLA in 2012. Over the summer of 2013, Erik traveled to the Dominican Republic, where he worked for a nonprofit organization (American Youth Understanding Diabetes Abroad) and conducted research alongside Robin Derby (UCLA professor of history) for his M.A. degree.

The upcoming conference will be the first of its kind — an event that will bring together graduate students from numerous departments to discuss immediate global issues from a distinctly multidisciplinary perspective. A keynote address will be delivered by UCLA Interim Vice Provost for International Studies Cindy Fan, after which graduate students will present papers on a diverse range of topics in ten separate panel discussions.

Pena hopes that in the long term, the conference will serve as an annual collaborative forum where graduate students across campus can share ideas and develop solutions to real-world issues, thus fulfilling a need for interdepartmental cooperation.

A multidisciplinary approach to both academics and problem solving is essential, remarked Pena, who urged undergraduates to pursue UCLA Interdepartmental Degree Programs, such as International Development Studies and Global Studies.

Pena’s studies at UCLA, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, have allowed him to study Portuguese, travel abroad and produce innovative initiatives — such as the May conference — that have pushed his goals of scholarship and service even further. Over the past academic year (2013–2014), he was the recipient of a year-long FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) Fellowship, awarded by the Latin American Institute with U.S. Department of Education Title VI Funding.

Master’s research: Demonic animals a barrier to health care?

Pena’s own research, which will be presented at the conference, seeks to make a tangible impact by helping improve health care access for people in the Dominican Republic. The impetus for his research arose during fieldwork with Derby in a small rural village in the Dominican Republic near the Haitian border.

In interviews with local farmers, medical professionals and NGOs, Pena noticed a pattern emerging in the illness narratives that he collected: demonic animals. It occurred to Pena that this folklore might be preventing people from accessing health services. 

These demonic animals, which include a baka (a creature we might liken to a mythological werewolf) and a bloodsucking witch-bird hybrid, are blamed for illnesses in the community. If a person is suspected of having a “sent sickness” from one of these demons, family members will take them to see traditional healers who are believed to possess supernatural powers.

According to Pena, these patients frequently die unnecessarily from their illnesses because they refuse to be treated by a medical doctor.

He is determined to ensure that his research on illness narratives in the Dominican Republic have an impact beyond academia. Pena both plans to incorporate a section into his thesis on how the research can be applied to real-life scenarios and hopes to continue his work through teaching, mentoring and service. 

“Even it's just translating, I'll be happy,” said Pena, who is committed to serving the people in the Dominican Republic, who offered him a second home during his research, in whatever way he can.

For details on the individual panels of the conference, click here or contact Erik Pena at

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