Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field

Every spring, a select group of Harvard College students receive travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis field research on topics related to international affairs. We selected eleven exceptional undergraduates whose research we will support financially as well as in other ways, from helping revise research methods to plan projects that don’t require travel. 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. Four Undergraduate Associates write of their experiences last summer:

Roshni Chakraborty

Roshni ChakrabortyWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: Gender-based violence; migration and displacement; conflict; natural disasters; social networks; citizenship and statelessness; modern South and Southeast Asia.

Amidst the roar of ambulances during India’s second wave of the pandemic this summer, I sat down with a blank Word document and an intense desire to contribute toward the innumerable crises my country was facing. Prime Minister Modi’s decision to shut down the country overnight caused a mass exodus of millions of migrant laborers from urban industrial centers to their rural homes. As images of migrants trekking hundreds of miles on foot in the sweltering heat occupied every TV screen, I couldn’t help but wonder where the children were. Not the children of these laborers, but the children who were migrant laborers themselves. 

Two kids playing near a fallen tree and sign after a stormIndia is home to over 10.1 million child laborers. Reports by ChildLine, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, and other nongovernmental organizations have found a dramatic increase in these numbers over the last two years because of the economic shock induced by COVID-19. Schools have been closed for over a year and the delay or cancellation of examinations has made indigent families question the necessity of continuing with education. 

In my senior thesis, I seek to deepen our understanding of the structural pressures that cause child labor migration. In particular, I question why Indian laws conflate child labor migration and child trafficking, arguing that the increasing tendency to use the two terms interchangeably serves the more insidious purpose of portraying these complex issues as a simple question of unchecked criminal activity, where the coercion is by individuals and not structures, rather than as a consequence of India’s socioeconomic pressures. 

My investigation began in North 24 Parganas, a district in my home state of West Bengal that is notorious for high rates of trafficking. Over the course of my work, I saw how families were compelled by poverty to seek out work for their children. They often mobilized caste and kinship networks to arrange work in urban centers, particularly as domestic help. Aunts, cousins, neighbors, and friends were often the ones finding jobs and facilitating the children’s migration. Other times, families hire the services of dalals (brokers or middlemen) in their caste networks. 

Roshni Chakaborty and colleague standing in the doorway wearing face masks and shieldsInstead of a concerted effort to challenge the drivers of child labor—such as grinding poverty and caste oppression—the Indian state has pursued a policy of criminalization of those who facilitate and assist in child labor migration as “traffickers.” While the law might classify these individuals as “traffickers,” the norms of trust and reciprocity that govern the interactions between the facilitator, the child, and the family often lead to the creation of genuine relationships of care, thus transcending traditional conceptions of an exploiter/exploited relationship.

Doing research during the pandemic was difficult. Hours of Zoom calls, followed by hours of parsing through my notes, all in the middle of a public health crisis of unimaginable proportions in India, tested me in more ways than one. But I was invigorated by the stories of resilience, compassion, and solidarity that I heard from the families I spoke with. 

I hope to reframe child labor migration and trafficking as complex and socially embedded phenomena and to challenge the law’s unequivocal condemnation of those who are forced to be complicit in it. It is only once we move away from such punitive regimes that we can begin to make space for structural solutions that return to these children their right to a childhood. 

Salomé Garnier

Salome GarnierWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Department of Government, Harvard College. Research interests: Global health; international development; social determinants of health; health policy; global health inequities; vaccine hesitancy; Latin America and the Caribbean; and Africa.

When I started working at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) in October 2020, I had no idea that, less than a year later, I would be on a plane to the Dominican Republic to do research for my thesis. I did not know that working with the HHI would inspire my thesis topic, or that it would give me access to amazing opportunities to conduct research abroad at a time when international travel was still rare and very complicated. 

The HHI launched a national household survey in June 2021, which I had helped prepare for during the prior eight months. The survey was part of a broader project that focused on defining the pathogens, transmission characteristics, risk factors, and geographic hot spots of acute febrile infections in the Dominican Republic. It was conducted in collaboration with the Dominican Ministry of Health (MOH) and included the collection of blood samples from each respondent for serological analyses. 

Group of field survey participants sitting on a large sign that says "Villa Trina"When I went to the Dominican Republic this August, my job was to support and observe the data collection process for the survey. I was also going for personal reasons: a few months earlier, when the HHI team was finalizing the survey questions for the study, I had offered to spearhead the addition of questions relating to vaccine hesitancy to the survey—a topic that was especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that would later become my thesis topic. 

After the survey had launched in country, hundreds of participants were enrolled each week. My job within the HHI consisted mostly, at the time, of monitoring the incoming data each day, to ensure that it was correctly inputted by the field teams, and to troubleshoot and resolve any data-related discrepancies on a regular basis. To that end, I spent the first few days of my trip unglamorously foraging through piles of consent forms and field checklists in the Dirección General de Epidemiología offices in Santo Domingo, to help ensure that the project—and my thesis—would be working with accurate and complete data. 

The second week, I joined our field teams in the city of Santiago and accompanied them to a different rural location in the Espaillat region each day. I observed the teams as they went from house to house, introducing themselves and the project to each household, and, when successful, sitting down with household members to administer the questionnaire and collect their blood samples. 

Field team members administer questionnaires and take blood samples from participants in their house

Walking with our field teams from house to house, I learned a lot about their experiences. They told me about distrustful communities that refused to participate because, in the past, fraudsters had posed as surveyors from the Ministry of Health and stolen their belongings. Similarly, they regularly faced individuals who refused to participate out of the belief that the survey teams were planning to vaccinate them against COVID-19 against their will. I experienced both situations first-hand during my visit. 

Overall, it was fascinating to get a better sense of the context in which this survey was operating—including the reasons why people accepted or refused to participate and how this could be relevant to my own research about trust and vaccine hesitancy. 

Finally, it was amazing to hear about people’s lives and experiences beyond a few quantitative survey answers and to learn more about how COVID-19 has affected people’s lives. For the most part, Dominicans were extremely kind; they always welcomed us into their homes, sometimes offering me little reminders of my visit—such as a giant avocado or a cute bracelet—as the accompanying “gringa” of the group.

I came back from this trip with a better understanding of the Dominican context and culture, along with stories from the field that I can incorporate into the qualitative aspect of my thesis. I am grateful that I was able to make the most of a summer during which travel was less than certain.

Ruth Jaensubhakij

Ruth JaensubhakijWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: Southeast Asia; race and ethnicity; migration and refugee studies; human rights; nongovernmental organizations and aid work; and transitional justice.

During this past summer, I felt as though I was constantly toeing the line between the pandemic and a tentative return to normalcy. I spent my Mondays and Tuesdays outside in the Boston Commons, playing sports and doing arts and crafts with young people through PBHA’s Summer Urban Program. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I was on Zoom, observing virtual classrooms and meeting one-on-one with high school-aged junior counselors. My friends and I went out to weekly dinners in Boston, trying different patios and rooftop bars—but on other nights of the week, I stayed in, calling into my virtual book club and catching up with my parents in Singapore. It seemed as though everything was hybrid, stuck in the in-between.

The same was true of my thesis. My project is an ethnographic study of the partnerships between American churches and anti-human-trafficking organizations in Thailand. I look at the theological motivations behind churches’ desire to engage with this work, how these religious beliefs then shape—and are shaped by—the interactions in these partnerships, and how ultimately Thai anti-trafficking discourses are used by American churches to inform other moral debates, including those on pornography, modesty, and consent. My focal point is neither the churches nor the anti-trafficking work, but rather on what takes place in the space between them.

Nine-seater crop duster plane on the tarmac with a few people standing aroundI had originally planned to spend eight weeks in Thailand, interviewing and volunteering with anti-trafficking organizations in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Pattaya, but it quickly became clear that a lack of access to vaccines and rise in COVID-19 cases across Thailand would make that nearly impossible. Instead, I had to conduct my research virtually, reaching out to churches across the country and organizations across Thailand for Zoom interviews and observations. I ended up interviewing over thirty-five individuals—founders, employees, and volunteers of different anti-human-trafficking organizations, as well with leaders and members of several churches—across a broad range of time zones and continents. 

Before the end of the summer, I had the chance to conduct fieldwork in person. In mid-July, I was invited to spend five days at the Community of Faith Church in Marion, Illinois, which despite its rural location and homogeneous community, has maintained a long-term partnership with an anti-trafficking organization in Thailand called the Tamar Center. I flew in a nine-seater plane—affectionately called the “crop duster” by church congregants—to get to Marion, where I was involved in many of the church’s weekly activities, such as delivering food to local homeless populations, partaking in Sunday services, and meeting people at the pastor’s son’s coffee shop. I met dozens of community members who had different relationships and perspectives on the work in Thailand. Perhaps most importantly, I was a guest host on twelve podcast episodes that the church was recording about anti-trafficking work both at home and in Thailand.

Empty podcasting studio with equipment

The relationships that I formed were invaluable and forced me to think more deeply about my own positionality in my research. As a half-Thai and a Christian, I was often allowed unique access and insight into the spaces I entered. I could feel my interview subjects loosen up when they began to understand why I was doing this project—those in Thailand would use Thai idioms and cultural idiosyncrasies to describe their experiences, while church members would reference Bible stories and use specific language that they felt I could also understand. Much like how my research ended up being hybrid between virtual and in person, I felt myself fluidly shift between researcher and participant over the course of the summer. Although it was different from what I initially imagined, I am immensely grateful for these experiences and the depth they will add to my project.

Kendrick Foster

Kendrick FosterWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Department of History, Harvard College. Research interests: Diplomatic history; Latin American-US relations; intra-Latin American relations; relationship between economics, environmentalism, and diplomacy; and Texas history.

In July 2021, Texas Republicans proposed a bill modifying the state’s social studies curriculum—notable more for its strikethroughs than its substance. Senate Bill 3 would remove pretty much every requirement for public schools to teach women’s history or ethnic studies—including a requirement to teach about white supremacy and a requirement to teach Native American history. Under this bill, Texas schoolchildren could go through their entire primary and secondary educations without learning a single fact about the Native Americans that once populated and controlled Texas. 

The proposed bill (which ultimately failed) struck a chord with me, especially as I had just spent three weeks at the state archives in Austin—right across from the state capitol building—looking at documents in support of my thesis project, which attempts to write Native Americans in to Texas history, not write them out like the bill proposed.

The front facade of the Texas State Archives building with a state constitution quote on the building

More specifically, my thesis focuses on diplomacy during the Republic of Texas, from 1836 to 1845. I contend that Texas took its relationship with Native American tribes as seriously, if not more seriously, than its relationship with state actors, and consequently engaged in serious diplomatic maneuvering with Native tribes. For example, Texas expended significant effort trying to broker peace with the Comanches so that they would not have to fight a two-front war against a serious Native enemy and against Mexico. 

When Texas did not get its way with Native tribes, it often turned to the United States for help—making Native American policy a significant part of state diplomacy and undermining its claims for independence resting on the idea that Texan settlers alone could stop Native attacks given that “Mexicans, owing to their natural dread of Indians, could not be induced to venture into the wilderness of Texas,” as Texan independence promoter William Wharton wrote. 

To conduct my research, I spent three weeks in Austin at the Texas State Library and Archives, where I sat in a windowless reading room for six hours a day poring through documents written in nineteenth-century longhand, which was difficult to decipher at best and inscrutable at worst. But I found the archivists incredibly helpful (with one conversation about relevant collections enduring thirty minutes past the archives’ official closing time). And every morning when I stepped through the wrought-iron double doors at the entrance emblazoned with the Texas seal through a massive, open rotunda to the reading room, I did feel some state pride, even if the legislators across the street passed a new piece of legislation that I disagreed with seemingly every day I was there. 

Graffiti on the side of a building that says "Visit Oakland" and has drawings of the cityAs I continued my research online through June and July while working at a nine-to-five remote internship, I discovered that I would need to travel to Berkeley, California, to look at some Mexican military documents that UC Berkeley had copied during the 1950s. (I had originally intended to travel to Mexico, but had to cancel after a surge in COVID cases there.) I was looking to confirm whether Texan claims that Mexico had encouraged Native tribes to rebel had any merit, and I found exactly what I was looking for—documents detailing Mexico's pursuit of arrangements with Native tribes to reclaim Texas. 

I felt similar emotions in Berkeley: despite huffing and puffing up the hill to the Bancroft Library to wrangle with a microfilm machine in a windowless room, I felt energized afterward, ready to delve into the next day’s archival documents and solve this historical mystery. 


  1. The aftermath of Cyclone Amphan in May 2020. The economic shocks caused by natural disasters and climate change are among the biggest drivers of child labor in West Bengal. Credit: Roshni Chakraborty
  2. Roshni Chakraborty (right) and a colleague at ActionAid (left) at work during the pandemic. Credit: Roshni Chakraborty
  3. Salomé Garnier posing with a survey team after enrolling inhabitants of Villa Trina. Credit: Courtesy of Salomé Garnier
  4. Field teams surveying participants and collecting blood samples near Moca, Dominican Republic. Credit: Salomé Garnier
  5. The nine-seater Cape Air plane flown from Nashville, TN to Marion, IL. The airline staff referred to this as the “big plane.” Credit: Ruth Jaensubhakij
  6. The makeshift podcast studio in the Community of Faith Church, where Ruth Jaensbhakij recorded twelve episodes of “On the Dock with Pastor Troy” in three days. Credit: Ruth Jaensubhakij
  7. A quote from the Texas Declaration of Independence dominates the Texas State Library’s front left facade. Credit: Kendrick Foster
  8. A mural on the facade of the Marriott in downtown Oakland, California invites viewers to visit. Credit: Kendrick Foster