Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field

Sixteen Harvard College students received summer 2014 travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in August, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the Center’s research environment. Early in the 2015 spring semester, February 5–7, 2015, the students will present their research in a conference that is open to the Harvard community. Four Undergraduate Associates write of their experiences in the field:

Image of Mayumi CornejoMayumi Cornejo

Williams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Research Fellow. Department of Government, Harvard College. The development of civil society in Latin America, focusing on peasant movements.

This past summer I was in Peru conducting field research for my thesis about rural community organizations. My research focused on the three most prominent and widespread rural community organizations: peasant patrols, auto defense committees, and neighborhood associations. Through interviews I documented each organization’s interactions with the state and development over time in order to explain their successes and failures in terms of their power and effectiveness. These organizations had been created to provide security to their communities as a result of a low or nonexistent state presence in rural areas of Peru. The members of the organizations called ronderos worked to carry out patrols where small groups of men took shifts throughout the night to watch over the village and report any suspicious activity.

My field research involved traveling to rural communities in Ayacucho and Junin in central Peru, and Cajamarca in northern Peru. I visited a total of six communities and interviewed their leaders, members of the community organizations, as well as other residents. In some places it was easier to contact people for interviews, while in others people were distrustful of strangers and making connections was much more challenging. The travel experience itself was phenomenal but also difficult logistically. Transportation to many of these communities is limited and accommodations were hard to arrange. Many times I depended on the kindness and help of strangers to find my way. As a Peruvian, having familiarity with the country and being fluent in Spanish certainly helped, but there were times when people spoke Quechua, the native language, and Spanish became almost useless. It was extremely rewarding going to places that most people never get to visit and observing the stark differences between rural and urban Peru in terms of lifestyle, community life, and community dynamics.

Image of Ydelso HernandezPeasant patrols are the oldest of the three types of community organizations. Residents who were tired of being victims to cattle rustlers and other criminals formed peasant patrols in the 1970s. In the village of Chetilla in Cajamarca, located two and a half to three hours away from the city, the peasant patrol was extremely well organized, engaged in all community affairs, and very successful in eliminating criminal activity altogether. This wasn’t surprising, as peasant patrols mainly found in northern and southern Peru have grown, gained strength, and become deeply influential in their communities, local politics, and even regional politics. In fact, peasant patrols have been so successful that in Cajamarca they are leading an anti-mining movement with a leftist political agenda against transnational corporations encroaching on their lands and natural resources.

The auto defense committees were formed in the mid-1980s with encouragement from the government and structural support from the military for counterinsurgency efforts in rural areas to fight the terrorist group Shining Path. In Chaquicocha, Junin, the auto defense committee was still active, but in contrast to the peasant patrol in Cajamarca, it was unconsolidated and weak—a shadow of what it had been during the Shining Path years.

Similarly, the neighborhood associations I found in Junin were not influential in their communities and therefore struggled to organize and accomplish their goals. These associations had formed in the late-1990s and early-2000s with support from police stations in places where auto defense committees had disappeared or in places that had never had a community organization.

With the information I gathered and experiences I had throughout the summer, I’m now even more enthusiastic about my thesis topic. I hope my findings will contribute to the existing academic work on state-society relations and community organization dynamics in rural Peru. Every community I visited and every person I encountered throughout my travels was extremely significant in shaping my research experience. I am most thankful for those individuals who agreed to be interviewed and told me more than I ever hoped to find out, for the people who warmly welcomed me into their homes and allowed me to participate in their everyday lives, and for those who shared a part of their life and community with me through their stories, insightful conversations, experiences, and wisdom.

Image of Diego Huerta and VAC staff membersDiego Huerta

Williams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Research Fellow. Department of Anthropology, Harvard College. Issues of migration, citizenship, and health inequalities among Latino populations.

Image of Diego Huerta with VAC staff membersThe Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in Texas serves as an initial, and for some Latin American migrants, final, “landing site” owing to its proximity to the border. The RGV shares approximately 150 miles of border with Mexico. This region is primarily composed of rural towns interspersed between large agricultural plots and obtains most of its economic viability from trade with Mexico and tourism. The area, however, has a surprisingly high number of HIV/AIDS clinics. The Valley AIDS Council (VAC) provides HIV/AIDS services through three clinics along this border area, two of which are the main focus of my research project. I decided to balance my time between the clinic in Brownsville, Texas, located on the southernmost tip of Texas and the clinic in McAllen, located about sixty minutes northwest.

Through my research, I aim to analyze how the local HIV/AIDS clinics interact with their communities, the social stigma associated with the disease, and the nuances of a life-long disease amongst a migratory population. Additionally,  I hope to understand how HIV/AIDS is an infectious disease that not only affects the Latino population, but also socially and culturally constructs the LGBTQ Latino community. I hope that my project will contribute to the scholarly understanding of the health of immigrant queer communities in the United States and address the lacunae of scholarship on these LGBTQ communities in rural areas, formed across nation-state borders.

When I arrived, I became involved with the clinic a week earlier than I had expected because the Valley AIDS Council was hosting a Queer Prom through the South Texas Equality Project (STEP). This is one of their newest initiatives meant to mobilize the community around issues of AIDS stigma and homophobia through advocacy and by increasing the visibility of the LGBT community. The following week, the clinic hosted a Community Mobilization Conference for other HIV/AIDS clinics in the southern and southwestern region of Texas. In that meeting I met members from the Texas Department of State Health Services  and I was able to learn about the efforts of other regional HIV/AIDS clinics and the various challenges that were unique to their communities. I quickly adapted to the rapid pace of the clinic.

Throughout the summer the Central American child refugee crisis become national news and dominated the local media. I became involved with local organizations that provided resources and services to the refugees from Central America and I became very interested in the HIV/AIDS youth experience. The staff emphasized that the most impacted demographic in the area were young men who have sex with men (MSM). I decided to follow up on this thread of the project and to further explore it during the summer. Apart from the clinic staff, I interviewed seventeen MSM youth (ages 18–24) who lived throughout South Texas and four additional participants who were older than twenty-four.

Before returning to Harvard I was able to accompany the staff from all of the Valley AIDS Council clinics to the 2014 Texas HIV-STD Conference in Austin, Texas. During this conference, I participated in workshops presented by various researchers and staff members from clinics throughout the state. During my final day at the clinic I gave the staff a brief overview of my project and interview findings.

One of the most interesting findings was how unaware the majority of youth were of HIV/AIDS. They all feared the disease, but few knew how it was contracted, how it could be treated, or about the existence of local resources. Apart from being an interviewer, I unintentionally became an advocate for the clinic and answered any questions that participants had about HIV/AIDS. Two participants mentioned that they would get tested and talk to their friends about the resources I mentioned.

Nationally, and within the organizations I worked, there have been changes to HIV prevention campaigns. First, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has launched two new campaigns aimed toward Latinos that focus on raising awareness of and testing for HIV/AIDS. There's also been a shift towards treating HIV through the use of Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) medication to prevent the spread of the disease—instead of solely focusing on safer-sex messages. Second, the clinic I worked with is producing three different billboard campaigns aimed at getting the community tested and STEP is preparing to host a Valley-wide “Pride” event in November. All in all, this was a very intense summer and because of developments like these and the recent shifts in US immigration policy, my research continues.

Image of Ralph “Tre” Hunt IIIRalph “Tre” Hunt III

Rogers Family Research Fellow. Department of African and African American Studies and East Asian Studies, Harvard College. The strategic role of Chinese Confucius institutes in sub-Saharan Africa.

This past summer I conducted thesis research in Beijing and Cape Town on the impact of Chinese cultural centers (known as Confucius Institutes) in sub-Saharan Africa. I had spent the spring semester studying abroad in Taiwan, and while I had been able to make some progress on the island with regard to my thesis, I knew that I would have to go to Beijing in order to get the answers that I really needed.

Prior to arriving in Beijing, my biggest concern was that my Mandarin would not be adequate to conduct professional interviews with academics and experts. Although I had just spent a semester in Taiwan and had no significant language-related difficulties, I spent the majority of my time using Mandarin to communicate about more casual topics such as East-West cultural differences, Japanese anime, food, movies, and Taiwanese TV shows. Beijing would be my first experience conducting formal interviews in a formal setting on a very specific topic. I knew this would be the biggest challenge of the summer–putting all of the Mandarin that I had learned over the past twenty months to the test.

My first interviewee was a Sino-international relations professor at Qinghua Daxue–commonly accepted as China’s second best university. During the interview I let my nerves get the better of me: my tones were more off than usual, my grammar was a bit twisted, I forgot some key vocabulary, and ran into a few other linguistic challenges over the course of the hour. As I left Dr. Chen’s office, I became a bit pessimistic toward the prospect of how the rest of my interviews would turn out, given that I had dozens more people to interview. Despite my sub-par language skills, I had still managed to get the answers to all of the questions that I wanted to ask. The professor even gave me a copy of a former student’s thesis about Confucius Institutes in order to further assist me with my research.

The second interview was excellent. My Mandarin was on point, and the interview quickly turned into a more casual conversation beyond topics of the China-Africa relationship. I went on to interview approximately twenty experts in Beijing.

Image of University of Cape TownDuring one of these interviews I realized that I would have to alter my thesis topic in the fall. This is because one of the main goals of my investigation was to figure out how China chooses where to place Confucius Institutes but was told that the host country actually approaches China! Nevertheless, I gathered a great deal of information regarding the China-Africa relationship, and heard several standpoints that I had never come across before, such as: Confucius Institutes are China’s modern version of 1970s Kung-Fu movies; Westerners look at Confucius Institutes as ways of brainwashing foreign cultures despite China never having this type of history (going to other countries to spread ideas is a Western tradition); and there is a vast range in opinion on how well African students can integrate into local Chinese university culture. I was ready to head to Cape Town in order to get the “African” side of the story.

I will never forget the way Table Mountain looked the first time I saw it on the drive from the airport. It was a cloudless day with a sapphire blue sky that reflected perfectly on the Atlantic Ocean. Upon seeing that mountain it suddenly hit me that I was no longer in the familiar country of China, but rather a complete terra incognita known as South Africa. Though I was familiar with South African history and aware that this was the “new” South Africa, I was still curious to see how my being a black American would play into the next six weeks, given that a mere twenty-five years ago the country was still under the Apartheid system.

I soon came to realize that I would have to alter my research plan somewhat. The University of Stellenbosch had a Center for Chinese Studies, which is regarded by many as being the top China-Africa relations research institute on the planet. However, once I arrived in Cape Town, I was quickly informed that there was no public transport to Stellenbosch. There was only the train, which notoriously runs off-schedule and is a two-hour commute each way. Because of logistical issues such as these, I found myself changing accommodations between Cape Town and Stellenbosch frequently, blocking together interviews at each location.

Things were not as smooth in South Africa as they had been in China. People were not as quick to respond to messages or return calls, which sometimes made getting in touch with them very challenging. Nevertheless, I still interviewed plenty of people and was surprised to find that many of their opinions did not differ too greatly from those of the Chinese that I had interviewed in Beijing. In both sectors experts generally agreed that Confucius Institutes are benign institutions that are truly dedicated to the teaching of Chinese language and culture, nothing else. While this was an important discovery to my research, it meant that I would have to adjust my thesis and include the question: Why did Zimbabwe implement a “Look East” policy shift in 2003 and not any other year? Despite the last-minute change, this was definitely the most exciting, memorable, and impactful summer that I have ever had.

Image of Debbie N. OnuohaDebbie N. Onuoha

Rogers Family Research Fellow. Committee on Degrees in History and Literature; Department of Anthropology, Harvard College. Slum communities; ecological and urban policy in Accra, Ghana; people as pollution; and waterways.

This summer, I spent three months conducting research in Accra, Ghana, for my senior thesis. Initially, my interest centered on recent “decongestion” exercises undertaken by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) along the Korle Lagoon—the city’s largest waterway. As part of efforts to clean up the polluted lagoon and modernize the city, the AMA repeatedly tried to displace the communities along its banks, including the slum community of Old Fadama (popularly called Sodom and Gomorrah).

However, when my research uncovered a string of similar large-scale projects along the lagoon dating back as far as the 1870s, I shifted my focus to examine this long engagement between Accra and the Korle. Why have city residents and authorities been so fascinated with decongestion and the Korle Lagoon? How has this engagement with the lagoon evolved over time? In what ways has the relationship between the lagoon and the city impacted not only the Korle, but also Accra itself?

Image of AMA cleaning along the Korle LagoonAs a joint-concentrator in history and literature and anthropology, my methods of inquiry borrowed from both fields. I spent one month conducting archival research at the Ghana National Public Records and Archives Administration Department (PRAAD), Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), and Graphic News Archives. I then spent another month conducting interviews with members of the AMA, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Ga traditional leaders in Accra. Most memorable was the Korle Wolomo—the chief priest of Naa Korle (the eponymous deity of the lagoon). His retelling of how some of the Ga people first settled along the Accra Plains centuries earlier cast the lagoon as a key site in the establishment of Accra. Lastly, I spent another month along the Korle speaking with residents about their daily interactions with the lagoon and observing workers at the nearby e-waste dump. I also often wandered around Accra asking residents in different parts of the city what they had heard of and thought about the lagoon.

A major challenge that I faced in my research process was time. Things often took much longer than I anticipated: I could be at the archives for an entire day and only have one relevant document to show for it, or an interviewee might show up three hours later than agreed upon, or sometimes not at all. Moreover, a few external factors affected the progression of my work. Mid-July, local fuel prices rose by 40 percent and within days the cost of transportation and many other goods skyrocketed. Additionally, Accra witnessed its worst cholera outbreak in thirty years, coupled with intense anxiety about the possible spread of the Ebola virus from nearby West African nations. This threat of disease greatly influenced my interactions with other people. Shaking hands—a gesture automatically performed upon meeting someone new (and often taken for granted)—was suddenly taboo. With the absence of physical contact, it was a great challenge to find other ways of connecting with new acquaintances in order to make them comfortable enough to share their thoughts and opinions with me.

Overall, the opportunity to continue my research in Ghana gave me access to a wealth of information on my topic. Because of the material that I collected—documents copied from the archives, recorded interviews, notes taken from conversations with city residents, videos I recorded of workers along the lagoon, and more—I can now in earnest work to bring my experiences and research together into a cohesive thesis that blends aspects of my two disciplines.

Photo Captions

  1. Mayumi Cornejo: Ydelso Hernandez (pictured center), president of the National Federation of Peasant patrols. Image Source: http://www.rpp.com.pe/2013-09-02-cajamarca-detienen-a-rondero-por-realiz...
  2. Diego Huerta: Valley AIDS Council (VAC) staff members and I pose for the Greater than AIDS Campaign in Austin, Texas.
  3. Ralph “Tre” Hunt III: University of Cape Town.
  4. Debbie N. Onuoha: Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) cleaning along the Korle Lagoon—the city’s largest waterway.