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Making the World A Better Place

Students increasingly use research grants to address problems around the world

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June 14, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University’s Office of Undergraduate Research has noticed an emerging trend over the last few years -- increasing numbers of students are seeking opportunities not just to advance their own careers but also to help solve problems in the world.

“Students have begun using these undergraduate research grants (URGs) to make a difference in the world while giving themselves experience that will help them do more in the future,” said Peter Civetta, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research.

Meixi Ng, who graduated from the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) in 2010, for example, is back in her home country of Singapore, working to adapt what she learned during her international engagement to help make a difference in the lives of children.

This summer, 28 undergraduates will travel abroad on undergraduate research grants. Among other topics, they will explore industrial development in Trinidad and Tobago, Saudi religious transnationalism in the United Kingdom, water resources in Tanzania and Uganda and an innovative anti-bullying approach that has effectively eliminated bullying in a school in Norway.

In Evanston, Chicago and locations across the country, students will use their grants to focus on nanotechnology in cancer drug delivery systems, Burmese refugee resettlement and issues around the Muslim headscarf and national identity.

This past summer and academic year, the URG program allocated more than $400,000 to fund the research of 133 out of almost 300 undergraduates who applied for grants. The program has come a long way since the Office of the Provost first funded the research of 24 students with $15,000 more than 20 years ago.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing students use these grants to engage in the real problems and issues of the larger world,” says Civetta. “The goals of global and community engagement that are centerpieces in the University’s Strategic Plan are reflected in many grants we fund.”

Read more from Civetta about undergraduate research grants and the ways some remarkable Northwestern students are making use of them to help make the world a better place.

What is the purpose of the Office of Undergraduate Research, and how do students use the Undergraduate Research Grants it offers?

Northwestern’s Office of Undergraduate Research funds students to do independent projects in any field of study. While most of these projects are ways for students to complete their studies, like a senior thesis, we have noticed that students increasingly use them not just to advance their own careers, but also to ‘do good’ in the world.

Can you give examples of students who have used their URGs to make a difference in the world? 

SESP graduate Meixi Ng is a great example. She received a number of grants as an undergraduate so she could learn best practices in the education of disadvantaged students around the world. After college, she won multiple prestigious fellowships, most recently living in Mexico learning and adapting the “tutoria” concept of empowerment through students mentoring each other. 

Another example is Lydia Hsu, a 2011 Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences graduate who completed SESP’s secondary teaching program. Lydia first received a grant to help develop an English language curriculum in Rwanda to help orphans of the genocide. That led to her spending much of the past few years living and working in Rwanda on a variety of fellowships in an effort to improve the lives of people there. (For more about Hsu, read the accompanying sidebar.) 

So undergraduate research grants can open doors to future careers?

Both these former students wrote a senior thesis connected to their projects and were funded by the University to do them, but they were not merely padding their resumes. They used their grant experiences to launch careers aimed at helping others through the benefits and experiences that they had. It was through the work of leaders like Meixi and Lydia that we began to notice this trend toward making a difference with your education.

And is the desire to “do good in the world” something you continue to fund through the Office of Undergraduate Research?

This trend not only continues, it keeps growing. This year, we funded 50 additional undergraduate research projects in which students sought to make a difference. 

For example, Weinberg and Medill senior Christina Walker and Medill senior Corinne Chin got a grant last summer to go to Uganda where they learned how corporate farming and genetically altered crops were impacting small, traditional farmers. They began work on a documentary film about the struggles of these farmers, but as they talked with people, they discovered that South Africa was serving as a model for the changes happening in Uganda. 

So when they returned to Northwestern, they promptly applied for and received another grant -- this one to go to South Africa. They studied the impact of South Africa’s changing farming laws and practices. Their final video showcases how “farming as a business” can lead to debt. Their next step will be pitching their feature and an accompanying magazine article to news outlets, and they’re also working on a policy proposal to discuss the implications for governments going forward. 

Albert Yan is a Weinberg political science major and student in violin performance at the Bienen School of Music. He went to Israel to study the impact of a new law aimed at greater transparency for internationally funded human rights NGOs. While a seemingly straightforward law, in his interviews with policy makers, academics and the impacted NGOs, Albert discovered that deep tension exists between “conservative-right” and “progressive-left” NGO factions. He hopes to return to Israel and conduct a larger scale study as part of his graduate studies. 

Lorraine Ma and junior Samuel Rong went to Cambodia to work on a documentary film about cultural influences on sex trafficking. While poverty has often been cited as a reason some families sell their children to sex traffickers, the two Medill students discovered that cultural acceptance of the practice plays a significant role, even prompting some families to sell their children to buy a television. They hope to use their film to show the harm done to these children and as a way of breaking the cycle of oppression. 

Nicole Magabo, a journalism and African studies major, went to Uganda and created an audio-photo slideshow portraying four young female social entrepreneurs in Kampala who are taking advantage of technological advancements in their businesses. Her goal is to use this piece to model how other women can succeed.

As a Ugandan citizen, Nicole is using the opportunities her education has provided her to try to make a lasting impact in her home country. She recently was selected to talk about her research at the Undergraduate Research and Arts Exposition run by the Office of Undergraduate Research. 

And these are just some of the ways that Northwestern undergrads are using URGs to make a difference?

These examples are only the beginning of what is being done at the urging of students at Northwestern and most likely students around the country to make a difference in the world. They’re not just interested in advancing their academic or professional careers -- which are perfectly legitimate goals. These students are dedicated to helping make the world a better place. The rest of us are very fortunate to have them out there.  

Topics: People, University