Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field

Last spring, eighteen Harvard College students received travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis field research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in September, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the Center’s research community by connecting with graduate students, faculty, postdocs, and visiting scholars. Early in the spring semester on February 6–7, 2020, 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 last summer:

Julie Ngauv

Image of Julie NgauvJulian Sobin Undergraduate Research Fellow. Department of History, Harvard College. Research interests: Genocide studies; oral history and memory; social history; Southeast Asian history; and Asian diaspora studies.

The Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in April 1975, remaining in power until they were deposed by a coalition of Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge deserters in January 1979. Over the course of four years, the Khmer Rouge subjected the entire population of Cambodia to forced labor in the rural countryside, establishing policies that destabilized the entire society. They targeted and killed elites, anyone who was educated, members of the former regime, and ethnic minorities.

As far back as I can remember, my father has told me stories of genocide: how he fought to survive, the things the Khmer Rouge did to him and his family, and the ways that this period scarred his own childhood. When I got to Harvard, wanting to study this, I realized that there wasn’t much foundation for me to stand on. Scholarship on the Cambodian genocide is rather scarce. The literature that did exist was missing something essential: a Cambodian voice, and the level of understanding that it brings.

In my sophomore year I read From the Land of Shadows, an overview of the genocide and the diaspora that followed, by a Cambodian American professor named Khatharya Um. She opened my eyes to my own ability to illuminate history: there are things that become clear only with an understanding of Khmer culture and language. 

Image of Julie standing at Angkor Wat

I also found that many of the existing survivor narratives and memoirs described the experiences of people from urban, well-connected backgrounds. These dominant narratives were very different from the stories I had heard from my family, who had grown up in the rural provinces of Cambodia. This past summer, I set out to find these stories.

The time I spent in Cambodia was incredibly eye-opening for me, both personally and as a researcher. Over the course of a month, I travelled to many provinces, interviewing fifteen individuals about their experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime. I sought to understand how the Khmer Rouge defined and enforced their ideas of what it meant to be truly Cambodian. How did survivors resist, carving out, preserving, and maintaining for themselves what it means to be Cambodian?

I spent the month staying with family members that I have seen only three other times in my life, and I completely immersed myself in the daily bustle of Phnom Penh. Every morning in the cool dawn hours, people woke up—my aunts among them—to set up their wares. They hurried to organize their small house-front restaurant for the morning rush of students that would come at 7:00 a.m., right before schools start for the day. 

Image of Psar Orussey, a Russian Market

When I was there, I talked, laughed, and asked many questions—seeing for myself what it was like to live in Cambodia in the present day, forty years after the Khmer Rouge eliminated large swaths of the population. At first glance, you could barely see the remnants of the regime: life rushed forward with such urgency that it seemed impossible to keep up, impossible to stop and think about the past. If you paused to dig deeper, however, you would find that this appearance was only superficial, and deep scars still remained. People still paused to think; to remember.

I travelled to rural temples, where the elderly and needy tend to gather and live, and I interviewed genocide survivors in their homes. I was amazed how nonchalant people were about sharing their experiences with me. When I was preparing for this research, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make individuals comfortable. How could I possibly ask them to share such sensitive and traumatic memories with me? To my surprise, people opened up and were willing to speak about anything and everything. It reminded me of what I knew but had forgotten in the whirlwind of preparation: that survivors of the genocide want to share, and want their stories to be remembered despite living in a society that desperately tries to forget. This experience of genocide, struggle, and survival is something that has deep roots in Cambodia: living under the Khmer Rouge was a shared, collective experience for every adult over the age of forty. Today, to be Cambodian means to have survived against all odds. I hope to do justice to those who shared their stories with me.

Russell Reed

Image of Russell ReedWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Research Fellow; Special Concentration in Geography and Development, Harvard College. Research interests: Locating zoos humains and the Belgian colonial imaginary in Rwandan and Congolese mountain gorilla conservation.

Over the winter and summer breaks, I had the privilege of performing research in both Belgium and Rwanda in support of my larger undergraduate thesis project. Currently, my research seeks to connect two seemingly disparate histories: that of the Royal Museum for Central Africa and its role in educating and (mis)informing the Belgian public about the African colonies, and of mountain gorilla conservation in Virunga and Volcanoes National Parks, housed in Congo-Kinshasa and Rwanda, respectively.

I spent the beginning of my summer in Belgium. I was primarily at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, where I spoke with a number of researchers—from primatologists to anthropologists to curators—about the history and politics of the museum. This research complemented the archival work I began in January, which had jumpstarted my larger thesis project by focusing on the role of zoos humains (human zoos) in promoting Belgian colonial expansion in Africa. 

My thesis begins with the phenomenon of the zoos humains, which involved the displacement and exhibition of 267 Congolese people at the 1897 World’s Fair in Brussels. The exhibit was extremely popular, with nearly one-third of the Belgian population visiting it firsthand. This success led to the foundation of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, where I worked. I consider the role this event—and over the next century, the museum itself—played in dehumanizing Congolese people in the Belgian colonial imagination, likening them to animals and emphasizing their perceived incivility and primitiveness. I argue that the museum and its propaganda were central to rationalizing the colonial project, too, creating a racist logic to pursuing civil colonialism—even while brutal and primarily capitalistic colonialism took place under Leopold and later the Belgian colonial government. 

Image of Russell Reed standing in front of museum in Belgium

I spent the remainder of the summer in Rwanda. I met many individuals involved in the conservation community, participated in a number of site visits at museums and parks, and visited the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. I wrapped up my work as an affiliate of the University of Rwanda’s Center of Excellence in Biodiversity by holding a seminar on my findings for Rwandan and Congolese students and faculty members. 

Virunga National Park was founded in what is now the southeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1925, making it the first national park in Africa. The park was founded following the discovery of mountain gorillas there, which have long been considered of great importance to conservation and, perhaps connectedly, to human and evolutionary science. They have also been used as a reference point to the “less-evolved” human, something that was theorized in the days leading up to European colonialism in Africa through (pseudo)scientific racism. 

Herein lies the connection I intend to tease out with my paper: how can the dehumanization of African people in the colonial and postcolonial imagination, and the (at times) simultaneous humanization of these nonhuman gorillas, be placed into one narrative, and what are its implications for our understanding of modern gorilla conservation, and of the larger international conservation regime? I believe that the long history of human and animal governance in the region complicates current conservation discourse, illustrating that the fine lines we seek to draw between “human” and “animal” have long been blurred in the region.

Image of gorilla

I look to the highly varied statuses of Virunga National Park in Congo and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda—which neighbor one another and house a fluid population of mountain gorillas—to attempt to explain the colonial influence on modern conservation efforts. In Congo, Virunga National Park continues to be one of the most endangered parks in the world, with local subsistence and international oil interests both competing against a militarized international conservation presence to destabilize the park. The park is headed by a member of the Belgian royalty and relies almost entirely on international funding. Its tourism operation is weak, comparatively inexpensive, and regularly shuttered due to political turmoil and kidnappings. 

Meanwhile, the Rwandan park has become a highly lucrative tourism operation under the strong postgenocide government, led increasingly by the domestic government. The park and its gorillas have been overtaken by the Rwandan Development Board (who were not, at times, thrilled with my research inquiries), and they have undermined the power of international agencies in their own conservation efforts, holding arguably the most sovereign wildlife conservation operation on the continent. This effort has been fueled by tourism revenue, but it originated from the Rwandan government’s interest in altering the international perception of Rwanda from a poverty-stricken, genocidal country in Africa to its current status as a development success story—the “Singapore of Africa,” as it is often called. 

My findings will come from a large variety of mediums, and I hope to use this history to provide new perspective in conversations related to environmentalism, sovereignty, aid, and sustainable conservation and development in Rwanda, Congo, and beyond. 

Isabel Parkey

Image of Isabel ParkeyUndergraduate Associate; Rogers Family Research Fellow. Committee on Degrees in History & Literature and the Committee on Degrees on Folklore & Mythology, Harvard College. Research interests: International organizations; intellectual property law; and the commodification of culture in contemporary Ghana.

Before I spent the summer in Accra, the capital of Ghana, I had spent months reading about the country’s 2005 copyright law and its provisions on the protection of folklore. Countless interviews and news articles online had warned of the law's potential threats to creative industries in Ghana, while others had hailed its passage as a necessary move to maintain the integrity of the nation's unique and most significant resource. Amidst all of this governmental discourse, I wondered what the actual effects of such a law might have for everyday users and practitioners of folklore. Over the course of my seven weeks in Accra, it became clear to me that there was a vast disparity between the letter of the law and the actual possibility of its enforcement.

Passed despite the complaints of concerned academics and major music industry players, the 2005 Copyright Act had effectively nationalized folklore. The law mandated licensing agreements and the payment of royalty fees from a government entity called the National Folklore Board for any usage of folklore outside the "customary context." Historically, the nation's copyright law had been applied only to commercial uses of folklore outside of Ghana, including Paul Simon's 1990 album Rhythm of the Saints, which included a sample of a Ghanaian folk tune called "Yaa Amponsah." The 2005 act, however, also covered domestic commercial use, requiring payments from Ghanaians themselves for the use of their folklore.

While many people I interviewed in Accra, from traditional coffin builders to archivists, expressed outrage at the idea of such a law, it ultimately came out that none of them had even heard of the law in the first place—much less had been following it. Indeed, to drive along the highways in Accra is to be hit with an onslaught of adinkra brand pastries, mass-produced Kente cloth backpacks, and advertisements for a new luxury adinkra high-rise building, all of which seem to stand in the face of the law. Adinkra symbols and Kente cloth are, in fact, the only two expressions of folklore explicitly protected under the Copyright Act.

Image of plastic chairs with Adinkra symbol on them

When I spoke to the acting director of the National Folklore Board later in my visit, I asked her about this proliferation of folklore in the commercial sphere. She noted that the board's primary targets were large telecom companies and banks, not individuals—in other words, those profiting the most off of the nation's folklore, and those able to pay the largest fees back to the National Folklore Board. They were also, she insisted, companies with the power and visibility to promote Ghanaian folklore, both at home and abroad. But there seemed to me to be a missing link between granting permission for the use of an adinkra symbol as the logo for a bank and the "protection" of folklore that had originally been touted as the board's primary mandate.

I looked at archival materials in the Nketia Archive at the University of Ghana’s Institute for African Studies and in the Public Records and Archive Administration Department to better understand the development of cultural policy in Ghana, exploring the various ways that the "protection" of folklore has been enacted since independence in 1957. From Kwame Nkrumah's large-scale national cultural projects to the UNESCO-assisted cultural policy documents produced in 1975 and 2004, to the actual legislative processes behind the passage of the 2005 Copyright Act and its 1985 predecessor, I began to uncover the various ways that folklore has been defined and deployed as both a symbol of national unification and a resource for economic development.

Image of National Folklore Board building

I also spoke with the people behind and affected by some of these policies, interviewing copyright administrators, members of the National Folklore Board, academics, and cultural practitioners to better understand the ways in which the law on folklore does—and does not—function. The tensions between the legal and cultural spheres were often palpable, as what some called safeguarding, others called dispossession. Across the board, however, the economic realities were evident. Though the government hoped to curb "inappropriate" usages of Ghanaian folklore, the funds to actually enforce the law were almost nonexistent. And for artists and everyday Ghanaians, the tourism market often presented the most potential for income, necessitating commercial adaptations of traditional culture in order to sell a kind of recognizable “Ghanaianess” to foreign visitors. 

As I finished writing my thesis this semester, my analysis was constantly informed and altered by the disparity between rhetoric and reality that I experienced this summer, and by a new understanding of the potency of the category of folklore itself in official and personal settings alike.

Matthew Keating

Image of Matthew KeatingUndergraduate Associate; Williams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Research Fellow. Department of Government, Harvard College. Research interests: International relations; asylum; LGBTQ issues; human rights law; European Union politics; migration; security studies; and norm diffusion.

The European Union, by virtue of the policies and sociocultural environments of its member states, is widely acknowledged to be one of the most LGBT-friendly regions in the world. In the past two decades, a majority of EU member states have implemented numerous wide-ranging domestic protections to expand the rights of their LGBT citizens. While EU national governments, as well as many academics, have sought to highlight and address ongoing disparities within the European Union for LGBT citizens to access certain rights and institutions, there has been a severe paucity of both research and public policy discussion addressing the intersection of the LGBT community and forced migration. This lack of popular and scholarly discourse on the intersectionality of LGBT rights with refugee rights occurs despite the fact that thousands of LGBT individuals migrate to Europe every year in order to flee persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, joining thousands more LGBT individuals who seek international protection on the basis of conflicts occurring in their home countries.

This summer, I conducted seven weeks of original field research in twelve different EU member states to evaluate how member states process LGBT claims for asylum. Through my field research, I interviewed EU officials, national asylum agencies, refugee NGOs, and LGBT rights activists in order to track disparities in implementation of the EU’s Asylum Qualification and Procedure Directives as they relate to the intake and care of LGBT asylum seekers. 

I specifically focused my field interviews on LGBT asylum NGOs in order to gather and document anecdotal evidence of both legal barriers and the necessary “legal infrastructure” missing for LGBT asylum seekers throughout the EU. I eventually shifted my questioning away from a simple needs assessment of LGBT asylum seekers in the European Union to understanding how overlooked components of Europe’s asylum process are not adapted for LGBT asylum cases.

In addition to the obvious problem of homo/transphobic judges and immigration officials, I’ve found that smaller parts of the process—everything from the translators, to the country of origin information reports (utilized by refugee status determination officers and the appeals judges to assess the safety of countries for LGBT persons), all the way to the fact that many of the initial asylum hearings are done publicly (and thus inhibit disclosure of LGBT status)—play an outsized role in leading to negative adjudications beyond just the “decision makers being homophobic.” 

The vast number of anecdotes that I have gathered in twelve different countries provides convincing evidence these are issues not limited to any specific country but rather are recurring across the European Union. Translators, for example, have often purposefully mistranslated terms like gay, lesbian, and trans, as well as boyfriend/girlfriend, to heterosexual wording—like "I came out as different when I was thirteen," or "he was my very close friend"—that completely changes the heavily scrutinized narrative of LGBT asylum interviews. 

I also found in numerous countries that translators—often from the same country of origin as the asylum seeker—sometimes offer legal advice to LGBT asylum seekers, or tell them not to “shame their family” by talking about LGBT persecution in their interviews. There’s also a lack of standardized terminology employed for a number of language translation, including Arabic, Dari, Pashto, and Farsi translation of LGBT terms. 

Image of LGBTQ banner

Many asylum agencies use grossly inadequate country of origin reports that do not include sections on the human rights conditions of LGBT individuals in claimants’ home countries, thus severely impeding judges’ and immigration officials’ abilities to determine a “well-founded fear of persecution.”  There are so many additional interesting barriers ranging from Western conceptualizations of “a linear coming out process” to racial disparities in how LGBT asylum seekers from Chechnya are adjudicated versus Ugandans. I have learned that refugee status determination officers—often under pressure to deny as many asylum claims as possible due to hostile domestic antimigrant politics—will seek to either disprove an LGBT asylum seeker’s identity as being legitimately LGBT (i.e., accuse them of lying) or seek to disprove that the LGBT community in their country of origin faces violence or discrimination. 

I administered a standardized survey during all my interviews with LGBT asylum NGOs that covers a number of these common gaps—translators, country of origin reports, trainings for refugee status determination officers, trainings for appeal judges, homo/transphobic refugee reception center conditions, differences for transgender asylum seekers versus gay men/lesbian women, and so forth. In addition to NGOs, I interviewed a number of pan-European experts, including representatives from the European Union Asylum Support Office, ILGA-Europe, and several academics.

Through combining the research puzzle of pan-European asylum infrastructure gaps with NGO data, this thesis will hopefully contribute to meaningful new knowledge on the complex interactions between European law, LGBT asylum seekers, national governments, and NGOs. As the European Union Commission and Parliament are in the process of “recasting” (or updating) their asylum- and migration-related directives beginning in 2020 with the start of a new European Commission, my hope is this field research may be of use in spotlighting gaps in implementation of existing European-level protections and standards and one day might play a role in the formulation of new European-wide migration policy. 


  1. Julie Ngauv at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Used with permission from Julie Ngauv
  2. Psar Orussey, or Russian market, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Used with permission from Julie Ngauv
  3. Russell Reed outside of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in January. Used with permission from Russell Reed
  4. Silverback mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Used with permission from Russell Reed
  5. Plastic chairs made by Strong Plast Ltd., a Ghanaian company which received a license from the National Folklore Board to use the “Gye Nyame” adinkra symbol featured on the chairs. Used with permission from Isabel Parkey
  6. The offices of the National Folklore Board. Used with permission from Isabel Parkey
  7. Banner supporting LGBT refugees. Used with permission from Matthew Keating