Participants at the first International Institute Graduate Student Conference (Photos: Michelle Sinness, Sandy Valdivieso, and Gaby Solomon/ UCLA.)

International Institute students present research and projects

In the second half of May 2014, the UCLA International Institute held its first all-campus graduate student conference, followed by its second annual presentation of research and community work by Institute undergraduates.

by Michelle Sinness and Catherine Schuknecht

UCLA International Institute, June 10, 2014 — May is typically the busiest month at the UCLA International Institute, with a busy schedule of public lectures, conferences, student research presentations and special events. The month also features two annual events of the Institute’s Interdepartmental Degree Programs that show off the achievements of its graduate and undergraduate students.

Graduate students present international research

Students and faculty at the very first UCLA International Institute Graduate Student Conference gathered excitedly in the Ackerman Union conference room on May 16, 2014. Huddled around breakfast pastries and coffee, they discussed their research, brainstormed new ideas and sought opportunities for collaboration with their classmates.

These were not scholars of a single discipline; they specialize in topics ranging from law to culture to performance studies. Although their interests were diverse, conference participants had one uniting trait: a passion for learning about and researching international issues. The conference gave these emerging scholars an opportunity to forge unlikely connections across campus, deepening their multifaceted understanding of their research topics.

The all-day event was organized and executed by a team of graduate students at the UCLA International Institute: Erik Pena (MA, Latin American Studies, 2014), James David Hillmer (MA, East Asian Studies, 2015), Vanessa Alvarado (MA, Latin American Studies, 2014) and Sanyu Mulira (MA, African Studies, 2015) .

Pena originated the idea for the conference and secured funding for it from the Institute, its Interdepartmental Degree Programs, the UCLA Graduate Student Association and the UCLA Social Sciences Council. Hillmer reviewed submitted abstracts, selected papers, created panels and was the point person for the panelists up until the day of the conference. Alvarado took charge of all printed and online material, outreach, recruitment and all the administrative details associated with each panel. And Mulira organized the participation of students from both the African Studies MA Program and the UCLA African Activist Association, reviewing submissions and creating panels with Hiller, as well as securing funding on behalf of African Studies. 

The multidisciplinary nature of the UCLA International Institute was reflected in the a message by Cindy Fan, interim vice provost of international studies, who highlighted extraordinary past graduates and the exciting future of the Institute. Following her introductory remarks, attendees dispersed into separate rooms to participate in panel discussions.

During four sessions, a total of ten panels convened to discuss a broad range of topics, as the names of individual sessions reveal: Diverse Approaches to Health and Wellness; Labor, the People, and their Environments; Creolization and Colonial Studies; Transnational Ideological Flows; Communication Issues in Global Health; Immigration and Representation in the U.S.; Diverse Issues in Labor Studies; China in Globalization; Truth, Silence and Human Rights; and Egypt, Lebanon and Los Angeles.

A brief snapshot of one panel was representative of the day’s discussions as a whole. Ana Luna and Carolyn Abrams of the urban planning department explored the tricky topic of female empowerment in Bangladeshi factories. When women go to work, their daughters often stay home to care for the household; does this translate disempowerment? On the flipside, women may be able to put off marriage and children if they are earning an income, which is empowering.

At the same panel, Sean Kennedy presented a paper on sustainable rubber production in the developing world. The attendees pondered the connection between garment factory workers and rubber farmers, the environmental impact of the two industries and issues of gender equity in industrializing economies.

Panelists at the “Diverse Approaches to Health and Wellness” session presented research on health obstacles — some shared, some unique — faced by communities in both the Caribbean and Africa. Despite the geographic difference, all panelists concluded that health was a universal right. The real question of discussion was how governments and communities prioritize the health needs of their people.

Although the panel came to no definitive conclusion on the issue, it raised many important questions. For example, malaria nets and feminine hygiene products are important, but are some needs more important than others? What are the priorities of the population? What do people really need? The discussion, it would seem, helped establish a framework for researching innovative and sustainable solutions for individual countries — a possible theme for next year’s graduate student conference.

All in all, the conference demonstrated the interconnectedness of the disciplines studied by students working on international issues. Through conversation and collaboration, the next generation of UCLA scholars have begun to establish networks across campus that will hopefully endure throughout their careers.

UCLA seniors celebrate graduation with research and community work presentations

“There's no other major like [International Development Studies] at UCLA that allows you to have such a holistic experience in academics," said Jessica Du, a recent graduate of UCLA’s International Development Studies program with a minor in public policy.

Du was one of five distinguished seniors selected to present their research and community work in international development (IDS), global studies, and international and area studies at the UCLA International Institute.

A celebration of undergraduate scholarship, the event embodied the Institute’s commitment to providing UCLA undergraduates with research and service opportunities. The presentations covered global issues ranging from inequitable distribution of wealth to health care access.

“It was a great event that presented a number of outstanding undergraduate students with the opportunity first to conduct and then to show their research,” said IDS Chair Mike Lofchie.

Global Studies and International and Area Studies Chair Michael Thies agreed, adding that the student presentations demonstrated dedication, creativity and exceptional scholarship. “It is always enjoyable to meet students who truly take responsibility for their own educations, who do more than they necessarily have to do to earn a UCLA degree, and who seem to have enjoyed the process as well, ” said Thies.

From left: Sandy Valdivieso, Magda Yamamoto, unidentified student, Grace Cho, Jae Jun
Brian Lee, Michelle Sinness, Jessica Du, Anjuli Dasika, Maddy Glenn, and Wenxi Lin.
(Photo: Catherine Schuknecht/ UCLA.)

Research with a global focus
The five seniors presented research and community work that was both globally relevant and representative of their undergraduate achievements at UCLA.

Gabrielle Young, who will graduate with a major in African and Middle Eastern Studies (Departmental Honors), spoke on U.S. media coverage of the war in Afghanistan, examining its role as a source of knowledge for the American public.

Basing her research on the work of Edward Said and the concept of American orientalism, Young concluded that there are “ideological and cultural restraints on how American journalists interpret what they report and observe in Afghanistan.

“Even in situations where America is the clear aggressor,” explained Young, “Afghans are portrayed as violent and anti-American, which helps blur the lines between enemy and civilian and dehumanizes Afghan suffering.”

Young expanded her analysis to conclude that the war in Afghanistan has generally been portrayed in American news media as an ahistorical event that began with the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

Michelle Sinness and Jessica Du tackled a different region in their research — Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A Latin American Studies Departmental Scholar with a double major in global studies and Portuguese, Sinness addressed the marginalized residents of Rio de Janeiro’s slums —known in Brazil as favelas.

Through an analysis of favela history and the methods of manipulation and control employed by drug traffickers, Sinness concluded that the restoration of a civilian government in 1985 did not result in a truly democratic Brazilian state.

In a situation that Sinness termed “exclusionary democracy,” the Brazilian state utilizes paramilitary forces to pacify favela violence and protect the surrounding middle- and upper- class communities.“[M]arginalized residents of the favelas are subjected to state repression and denied the benefits of democracy,” said Sinness, adding that the Brazilian state must pursue aggressive reform if it hopes to establish itself as an emerging world power.

Du also addressed inequality in Brazilian society, but with a focus on rural poverty. As a recipient of the International Development Studies Academic Award and a participant in UCLA’s Departmental Honors program, Du had the opportunity to conduct in-depth research and produce a full thesis on socioeconomic stratification among poor rural Brazilians.

Despite exponential economic growth, explained Du, Brazilian society has remained highly unequal. Based on extensive historical research, Du concluded that Brazil’s current socioeconomic conditions are rooted in racial distinctions between landowners and the landless that were established under Portuguese colonial rule.

Du’s thesis also included an investigation into what the World Bank, the Brazilian government and social movement groups are doing to address inequality in Brazil. While the World Bank has partnered with the Brazilian government to bring resources and services to rural areas, Du claimed the Landless Workers’ Movement was more effective in contributing to real change.

Grace Cho, who will graduate with a major in global studies and a minor in urban planning, continued the discussion of economic inequality in her presentation on the inequitable distribution of wealth in Fresno County, California.

“In my research, I found that the local economy in Fresno is very connected to the global and cultural market,” explained Cho, and that “globalization has exacerbated spatial inequalities and the uneven distribution of wealth in Fresno.”

Anjuli Dasika offered a presentation of the community work that won her the International Development Studies Activist Award this year. An IDS major with a minor in South Asian Studies, Dasika pursued her interests in education and public health by joining the Fellowship for International Service and Health (FISH) and interning at a primary school in Pune, India.

FISH is a student-run 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization at UCLA that does international global health work, focusing on an impoverished border community in Mexico. Dasika’s internship in India was hosted by a nonprofit educational organization, the Akanksha Foundation, that works with low-income children.

Through her work with these international nonprofit organizations, Dasika realized a passion for fieldwork, which allows her to have a tangible impact on communities. “In [the] future, I see myself working as an educator,” said Dasika, “either through public health or. . . [teaching] English lessons abroad.”

The conference also recognized the leaders of the International Affairs Student Association, formed in November 2013 to bring together students from multiple disciplines who are interested in global issues and hope to pursue careers in international affairs.

This article was first published on June 10, 2014, and updated on June 12, 2014 and again on March 16, 2015.

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