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 seventeen exceptional undergraduates whose research we will support financially as well as in other ways, from helping revise research methods to planning 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:

Sophie Stromswold Feldman

Williams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies and Department of Linguistics, Harvard College. Research interests: Integration and assimilation; sociolinguistics; migration; international conflict mediation; gender studies; modern Scandinavia; human rights; and political polarization.

When I first arrived in Oslo on June 20, 2022, I was greeted by warmth. Sunny, clear, and almost always a balmy seventy degrees, Oslo’s summer represents a welcome change from the winters that Norway is most known for. And yet, as I conducted seven weeks of research on immigrant integration and inclusion, I was besieged by narratives of coldness. Both amongst immigrants and ‘ethnic’ Norwegians, I heard endless stories about the shyness and the antipathy of the Norwegian people.  

Women of the Intercultural Women's Group doing a meditation meeting outside sitting on blanketsMy project aimed to better understand how a historically racially homogenous country has reacted to an influx of migration. During the seven weeks I spent in Norway, I interviewed screenwriters, journalists, youth politicians, Child Protective Services agents, CEOs of cultural groups, mental health advocates, and employees working within the immigration system. Simultaneously, I conducted an ethnography of three different nonprofit organizations: the Intercultural Women’s Group, which organized trips for immigrant women in the Oslo area; the Red Cross, which provided a social gathering space and day trips for recently arrived immigrants; and Caritas, a nominally Catholic charity that provided practical help to economic migrants.

I began my field work and interviews largely without a clearly defined problem, knowing only that I wanted to understand the practical and emotional mechanisms of integration and inclusion of immigrants in Scandinavia. I set out to track and record the narratives that immigrants used to describe their inclusion and exclusion in Norwegian society, understanding how it is to be, as one of my interviewees termed it, “a minority in a majority country.” 

Loneliness emerged as a key theme. Many immigrants in Norway feel a profound sense of isolation. Many have no contacts outside of their families. As one interviewee put it: “Where I’m from, you learn Arabic on the street, from your neighbors. I’ve lived in Oslo for twenty-one years. I don’t speak to my neighbors, and they don’t speak to me.” Norwegians are a reserved, even cold people. For many of the people that I interviewed, this coldness served as a prohibitive barrier between them and meaningful social connection. Of the half dozen or so organizations that I studied, and the three more that I worked for, the majority focused primarily or entirely on creating a social space for immigrants to gather. For many who frequented our programs, we were not only their main source of social interaction, but also their only opportunity to speak Norwegian. This linguistic barrier compounded the existing sense of loneliness. Even with the dozens of immigrant integration programs currently operating in Oslo, many of my interviewees told me that they had no native Norwegian friends whatsoever, a fact that is particularly galling when you consider that more than 80 percent of Norway’s inhabitants are ethnically Norwegian. 

A woman places flowers at a colorful memorial on the sidewalkOnly five days after I arrived in Oslo, a lone gunman opened fire on an Oslo gay bar, killing two people and seriously wounding several others. News spread quickly: newspapers began to report that the shooter had been a Norwegian citizen with origins in Iran. In addition to being an unusual tragedy in a relatively peaceful country, this event sent shockwaves through Norwegian queer and Muslim communities in Norway. As Oslo’s gay community rallied around solidarity, Norwegian politicians denounced the act as Islamic terrorism. For the rest of the summer, this conflict helped shape my work, pointing to the paradoxical coexistence of solidarity and hostility. 

I came back from my research with more questions than answers. As I write about my experiences, I want to convey the complexity of this issue. I feel that my work speaks to fundamental human realities: loneliness, solidarity, and the paradox of desegregation without integration. 

Ariel Silverman

Williams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy, Harvard College. Research interests: Natural resource development in Latin America; environmental and climate justice; energy and security; decolonization; dilemmas of left-wing political reforms; and terrorism.

Just past noon on June 28, 2022, the convention president’s gavel struck her desk for the final time, approving the final amendment of the 2022 constitutional proposal to be voted on by the Chilean people on September 4 later that year. 

I had managed tAriel poses with Dr. Cristina Dorador in front of the Chilean constitutional assemblyo enter the convention grounds that morning for an interview with Dr. Cristina Dorador, a microbiologist and environmental advocate elected as one of the representatives of Chile’s third district. By peeking into the assembly room from the hallway, I could just barely see the Chilean constitutional assembly members rise to their feet and embrace one another. It was a historic moment that I feel honored to have witnessed during ten weeks of summer field research in Chile.

I had come to Chile to study the impact of nationwide protests for democratic reform on improved environmental outcomes, especially in the Atacama Desert. After a month in Santiago, I traveled to San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis in the world’s driest desert. There, I conducted interviews with dozens of municipal employees and members of the Indigenous Atacameño communities to better understand the local context. With much patience on the part of my interviewees, I finally came to understand and embrace the colorful Chilean accent. 

The Atacama Desert is the site of the most intensive copper and lithium mining in the country, and both are crucial materials to supporting international climate mitigation. Additionally, mining companies support local economic development where the state has historically been negligent. Unfortunately, mining requires significant quantities of water to operate, creating conflict with the ecotourism industry and the local communities. 

In the summer of 2022, it appeared as if Chile could realize nationwide hopes for greater environmental justice. The constitutional convention arose from the largest protests in Chilean history since the Pinochet era, where advocates from diverse sectors of Chilean society called for a fundamental revision of the country’s extractive-based economy. Consequently, the Chilean people elected a progressive constitutional assembly that produced an ecological constitution. In its 170 pages and 388 articles, the draft declared rights to nature and animals, reconstructed an unequal private water management system, and declared a climate emergency.

This moment of acute hope did not last. On September 4, 62 percent of Chileans decisively rejected the proposal, sending the country back to be governed by the 1980 Pinochet-era charter blamed for perpetuating many of Chile’s systemic inequities. The outcome also meant that I needed to reframe my research question; instead of exploring the ways the government has succeeded in implementing environmental regulations, I am now focused on answering the question: Why has the Chilean left failed to realize its green agenda?

Ariel stands in the midst of the Atacama desert on a clear sunny day

While I argue throughout my thesis that the Chilean left has “failed” to green, such failure should not be understood as incompetence on the part of assembly. Rather, the outcome reflects the many tradeoffs fundamental to modern left movements that complicate realizing a more just and sustainable world. The length of the document and number of rights designated reflects the progressive body’s attempt to include the many diverse interests and identities coexisting within the Chilean nation. Individuals across the political spectrum voiced concerns that too significant an expansion of certain protections would slow desperately needed growth. In a context of inevitable tradeoffs between environmental justice and economic development, the Chilean people chose the latter.

The outcome of September 4 is a demonstration of the fundamental challenges—but also incredible opportunities societies have to cocreate the world we want to inhabit. The recent convention is hopefully just the beginning of an inclusive national discussion about Chile’s values and goals moving forward. Here in the United States, in light of recent rollbacks in constitutional rights based on an originalist interpretation of a document written in 1787, we can surely learn from analyzing the Chilean experience not only as a failure but also by appreciating the ways it strove to realize a more just and equitable world. 

Chloe Koulefianou 

Rogers Family Research Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies and Department of African and African American Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: Togolese political history; West African society; migration and diaspora; decolonization theory; critical archival studies; race and ethnicity; and Afrocentrism.

I spent five weeks this summer in Lomé, Togo, conducting thesis research on Togolese political history and how it has shaped the population's national identity. Togo holds a unique place in the global political sphere as the stage for the first presidential coup of postcolonial Africa. Since then, the regime of Eyadéma has become notorious for corruption, collusion with France, and unfettered violence, only to be succeeded by his son, Faure. Within this context, I am interested in how citizens think and feel about the government in relation to themselves and their communities. I am examining how people navigate a society rife with fear mongering, ethnic tensions, and myth making, and the subtle ways in which they do express their discontent when the traditional methods of civil disobedience are heavily suppressed.
Chloe cooking tufu with her grandmotherThis issue is a personal one for me; as a child of the diaspora with a deep love for the country and those that tie me to it, my research naturally follows the thread of a family history. Conversations with my grandmother taught me about the Togolese decolonial struggle and its early years as a post colony. My grandmother was a little girl in 1960 when Togo welcomed its first president, Sylvanus Olympio. She was not much older when he was assassinated by Eyadéma in 1963. I would help her in the kitchen as she told stories about how the jubilation of independence was too quickly followed by mourning the leader that led them there.
My aunts and uncles offer a glimpse into what it was like growing up in the Eyadéma years and the reality of living in Togo today, under the rule of his son, Faure. Their generation came of age during the fight for droits de l’hommes (human rights) in West Africa. Protests were met with incredible violence at the hands of the police; even the smallest demonstration was—and still is—met with militarized force. My aunt mentioned that they “don’t do strikes” in Togo, traumatized by a series of general strikes in the 1990s that was met with such violence from the state, almost a third of Lomé’s population was forced to flee to neighboring Ghana.
My mother represents the Togolese diaspora, a political response to the actions of an unrelenting state. Of the nine million Togolese people living in 2014, almost 25 percent of them resided as expats outside Togo. An entire 10 percent of Togo’s GDP consists of remittances from expatriates. In response to the news of my thesis topic, my mother sighed: “Togo is not a country.” Though she remembers her childhood in Togo with great fondness, she stated “the things that are happening on the political level…if you have a heart, you cannot live there today.” Emigration is a national phenomenon in Togo—leaving the country is among the subtle ways Togolese people reclaim power from the state for themselves and their families.
My uncle once told me that despite everything, despite countless lives lost in the fight for a better life in their country, the only thing that has changed in Togo is that the walls are dirtier. The political momentum that Togo saw in the 1960s has been met with an equal and opposite force, keeping the quality of life in a state of stagnation. My research speaks to the plethora of factors that contribute to the relationship between the state and the people, and how this relationship shapes identity, culture, and political participation. This is a massive undertaking, and requires the project to also interrogate ethnic relations, methods of communication, the function of fear, colonial history, and so much more with great nuance. Though many people could not place Togo on a map, the little country is bursting with history that has caused huge reverberations in the fabric of West African society since independence.

Newspaper opened to a page that says "stop all illegal demonstrations" at the top in red

Anissa Medina 

Rogers Family Research Fellow. Committee on Degrees in History and Literature and Comparative Study of Religion, Harvard College. Research interests: Colonial history; decolonization; American Southwest; historical memory; race, ethnicity, and Indigeneity; religious history; and carceral studies.

“The Pueblo Revolt never ended,” declares a sticker affixed to a plaque at the site of the recently removed Soldier’s Monument in Santa Fe Plaza, a national historic landmark in the capital of New Mexico. The Pueblo Revolt, led by Po’pay of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, was a successful rebellion against imperial Spain carried out in 1680. Pueblo people, like other Indigenous peoples in the region, were subjected to religious, economic, political, and cultural suppression under Spanish and Catholic rule; this included the incarceration of holy men like Po’pay for their Indigenous spiritual practices. After being whipped in the colonial capital of Santa Fe, Po’pay had a prophetic vision that inspired the organized uprising that would drive out the Spanish for twelve years. As the sticker demonstrates, memories of Indigenous resistance to colonial conquest persist, actively shaping the contemporary commemoration of the revolt while protecting Indigenous sovereignty for the future.

Anissa interviewing two people on the streetWhile I was conducting research for my thesis, I came across a 1980 meeting between Mexican, Spanish, and Pueblo dignitaries at the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico. These leaders exchanged gifts to commemorate the tricentennial of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. After reading about this exchange, I became very interested in how the Pueblo Revolt is remembered both domestically, in New Mexico and the larger United States, as well as transnationally, as represented by ambassadors from Mexico and Spain. This anecdote led me to a summer of research on public memory, ethnoracial identity, and the power of religion.
I traveled to Spain for three weeks, spending time in Madrid, Medellín de la Extremadura, Sevilla, and Barcelona. In Madrid, I visited several statues and plazas observing how people interacted with the commemoration of prominent Spanish figures involved in the colonization of the US Southwest. For example, in Plaza Mayor, which hosts a popular statue of King Phillip II in the site formerly used to hold public executions during the Spanish Inquisition, I interviewed both local and foreign visitors. I asked these visitors about their knowledge of the figure who oversaw Spain’s colonial invasion of Pueblo homelands in the sixteenth century; the vast majority—especially those from Spain—were unaware of King Phillip II’s name and historical role.
Statue of Hernan Cortes depicting him clad in armor and holding a flag and crossAfter my stay in Madrid, I traveled to the statue of Hernán Cortés in his birthplace of Medellín. The statue of Cortés depicts him clad in armor holding a flag and cross while his left foot stands atop a representation of a Mexica idol (the Mexica were Indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico). The front of the statue bears a shield that says MEJICO, a celebration of Cortés’s role in the colonization of modern-day Mexico. I then traveled to Sevilla where I made a brief visit to the Archive of the Indies and read a few sixteenth-century manuscripts from prominent Spanish colonizers.
After I concluded my research in Spain, I traveled to New Mexico. With the help of the University of New Mexico and the Fray Angelico Chávez Library, I consulted dozens of sources ranging from the sixteenth century to the 2000s pertaining to the Pueblo Revolt and its commemoration. I also interviewed sculptor Cliff Fragua, the artist who created two statues of Po’pay that I analyze closely in my thesis; I visited the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center where one of these statues is held.
Studying material objects in the public spaces they occupy offers critical context for my analysis and I loved witnessing how people interacted with the statues of my study. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to travel and research a topic that is greatly important to me, and I am excited to continue working on my thesis over the next few months!


  1. At an outdoor meeting of the Intercultural Women’s Group, women sit on picnic blankets as they prepare for a group meditation. Courtesy of Sophie Stromswold Feldman 
  2. At a pride demonstration in the Center of Oslo, a woman places a flower onto a rainbow-covered poster of King Harald V, its caption reading: ‘Norwegians are girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and girls and boys who love each other.’ Courtesy of Sophie Stromswold Feldman 
  3. Ariel Silverman and Dr. Cristina Dorador at the Chilean constitutional convention on the day the assembly finalized the proposal. Courtesy of Ariel Silverman
  4. Ariel Silverman hikes in Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) in the National Flamenco Reserve, Chile. Courtesy of Ariel Silverman
  5. Chloe Koulefianou helps her grandmother make fufu, a West African dish made of yams pounded to a stretchy dough. Courtesy of Chloe Koulefianou
  6. Published in the midst of antigovernment protests and strikes, this edition of Togo-Presse urges students to ‘stop all illegal demonstrations.’ Courtesy of Chloe Koulefianou  
  7. Anissa Medina interviews visitors in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor. Courtesy of Anissa Medina
  8. Statue of Hernán Cortés in his birthplace of Medellín de la Extremadura, Spain. Courtesy of Anissa Medina