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Alumni Spotlights

Many times International Studies students wonder “What can I do with an International Studies Major once I graduate?” – To help give you an idea of what opportunities are out there for International Studies graduates, please take a look at what former International Studies students have done with their International Studies major, as well as tips to help you take advantage of your undergraduate career at UCSD. 

Sarah Hassaine - Humanitarian Volunteer for Salaam Cultural Museum

Sarah Hassaine, Class of 2004

Degree: Bachelor of Arts, International Studies - Political Science

"I want to shed perspective.

Imagine you come home one day and as you pull your car into your home, you silently register how both of your neighbors have left. Many of your friends in the neighborhood had been talking about leaving as well. You go home and close the door and sit down to dinner with your family, silently registering the lack of meat, less bread and no fruit on the table. The streets are deathly quiet outside. You miss the honking and the voices that used to make up the streets. No one goes out anymore.

You drive to school the next morning and drive by large hordes of people trekking with their families across the highways. Little kids on their fathers’ shoulders, and toddlers trying to keep in step with their parents. They look wide and lump shaped, and you note how they are wearing as much clothes as possible to take with them on their journey. How long will they walk for? Where are they going? They are leaving everything behind to start over. You glance back in your rear view mirror and look back at them wondering, “Should I leave?”

That is how it began for so many Syrian and Kurdish refugees that sit in the camps in Greece today. They had a normal life like the majority of us, they too would get up and go to work, go to school, go to the market, etc. And as the conflict worsened amidst their own borders and bombs were getting dropped, families had to make difficult decisions that would impact their lives forever. Do we stay and risk dying in our own homes here in Syria? Or do we leave and take the risk of a long journey to go somewhere safe and find a new home and opportunity for our family?

Far from our reality here in sunny peaceful San Diego. The realities of war and what it means to be a refugee are not concepts we can imagine to grasp. And yes as IR students we spend night after night pouring over text books and case studies that paint that canvas of “understanding” for us before we enter the “real world,” but in truth, nothing can prepare you for the developing world until you step foot in it.

I graduated from UCSD in 2004 from the International Studies department with a one way ticket to Beirut, Lebanon, eager and excited. I was going to work with Palestinian refugees for one year and put my degree to use and enter the field finally.

And that was the best thing I ever did. The beautiful thing about field work is that you connect with the people, you feel their cause, you smell their reality, you sit in their homes and live their daily routine. The bad thing is you often feel sad and frustrated because even while trying to help, the magnitude is beyond you.

Fast forward 11 years, and this time I had a round trip ticket to Greece to volunteer with Syrian refugees that had come on boats from Turkey. Once an IR student, always an IR student. I was educating myself more on the political situation and I felt like I was 21 again looking for opportunities help the people affected by the warfare.

What does being a refugee really mean? And what is a humanitarian crisis? We throw words around daily but there is a complete disconnect on the state of their actual existence and the politics on the ground.  And going forward, I will not coin the people refugee as I want to humanize them to you because that is what they are, people like you and me, who are currently struggling to find and make a home again.

Nothing can fully prepare you for field work, no picture or video or article.

I went to Greece with an organization called Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM) as a humanitarian volunteer, planning to help with the schools in some of the camps and help teach English as well as serve as a translator for the patients in the camp clinics.

Upon arrival, you are struck by the endless rows of tents. Each tent houses 7-10 people, usually one family, up to 2-3 generations.

Every day, each person is given a piece of bread wrapped in plastic and a juice box. On good days, you are told to go line up for some tuna, or noodles, or eggs. One donation per tent.

There are 15 porto-potties and 10 showers for 500 people. The toilets are emptied daily but the odor is putrid and overflows into the camp. The showers are in a large crate with curtains to “separate” but there are no windows inside and so it is very steamy and hard to see. The water does not drain properly and the toilets don’t flush. It is never empty and there is no privacy.

Where are the sinks?

Outside in the open air as well. One row of sinks for the men and one for the women. There are no mirrors, just sinks.  The same sink you use to rinse a cup, wash your underwear, wash your baby, get your drinking water and wash your face.

The refugees cannot just leave the camps. Most are controlled by the Greek military and are in remote locations where there is nothing nearby but warehouses, farmland, and sadly even sewage facilities that emit God-awful smells.

We all joke about being hangry and how no one should talk to us til we eat. Imagine 55k people like that in Greece. Hunger spills over into irrational acts and pure frustration. I saw things I will never forget after one week of volunteering. What I experienced and learned felt like three months. I would collapse in my hotel bed just miles down the road from the camp emotionally exhausted after long 12 hour days. But it was the most fulfilling 12 hour days of my life. I taught English to the kids, I translated in the medical clinics, I painted a library (a shack-like building), I did food distribution, conducted camp surveys by going tent by tent and just made it a point to talk with people and sit and listen. I got to leave at night, but they stayed.

Every day was different though, you never know what will happen when you wake up and what the political climate amongst the camps, the Greek military and the other international organizations will be. And that is the challenge with international development – all the players. The reality of international development is so frustrating when it comes to collaboration. Larger organizations try to push out smaller ones or take their projects and claim them as their own. I personally saw that with SCM and the learning center they built for the kids. Three weeks after they opened it, they were suddenly instructed to stop classes and that another organization will take over. There was no debate and they could not contest it. It came from the Greek government. That organization had friends on the inside. So even when helping, you hit wall after wall and you end up being part of a whole new socio-economic-political reality. The world of development is frustrating. You need resources and power and the right allies, it is never about good intentions and often, the cause is overlooked.

I had a lot of guilt leaving, I felt like I was abandoning the people. But the sadness was one sided. They are a people that are used to loss and used to people coming in and out. Such is the world of development. One little boy drew me a good bye picture…it was of a heart crying and he was holding balloons of hearts that were crying.

 “Did you come for us? To help us?” An old lady asked me as she sat outside her tent, “yes,” I reply kneeling down to sit next to her cross legged, “They know about us out there where you are from?” “Yes,” I reply, hoping I am right."

Natalie Becavin-Tan - J.D. Candidate 2015, University of San Diego School of Law

Nathalie Becavin-Tan, Class of 2011

Degree: Bachelor of Arts, International Studies - Economics and Chinese Studies

Occupation: J.D. Candidate 2015, University of San Diego School of Law

These are a few things that made my undergraduate years such a wonderful experience: the beach, late nights with friends, and Sun God. In 2011, I graduated with a Bachelors in International Studies with tracks in Economics and Chinese Studies. Currently, I am attending the University of San Diego School of Law, pursuing international tax law. I have always had a passion for international relations, partly because I grew up in Thailand before moving to the United States. The other part was my fascination with human affairs and world economics. I was actively involved in cultural student organizations and attended many career programs offered at UC San Diego before finally deciding to apply to law school. It took a lot of questioning and searching before knowing what I wanted to do. I entered UCSD with a science major to appease my family's dream for me to be a health professional. However, International Studies was definitely a better choice and set me towards where I want to be.

"If you want something you've never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done." - Thomas Jefferson

Jimmy Lee - Development Associate, Plant with Purpose

Jimmy Lee, Class of 2009

Degree: Bachelor of Arts, International Studies - East Asian Studies

Occupation: Development Associate, Plant with Purpose

Having lived in four different Asian countries before attending UCSD and having been exposed to many cultures through the international schools I attended, there was no doubt that I wanted to be part of the International Studies Program at UCSD. As an ISP student, I took advantage of the Intensive Language Program and the Joint Program in International Studies by studying abroad in Shanghai for six months. My study abroad experience is one of my favorite and most memorable experiences during college: cheering for the Korean taekwondo team at 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, fighting altitude sickness in Tibet, drinking yak milk (and baijiu) in Inner Mongolia, and attending China’s largest beer festival in Qingdao.

Immediately after graduating from UCSD, I divided my time among the San Diego Asian Film Festival (organized by the Pacific Art Movement), the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, the San Diego Latino Film Festival, and the Asian Cultural Festival of San Diego. Since then, I have been working for over three years as the Development Associate at Plant With Purpose - a San Diego based international development organization working to alleviate poverty and reverse environmental degradation around the world.

Through Plant With Purpose, I have traveled to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, leading a group of supporters on a trip to witness the transformational work that is being accomplished by our partners. I also serve on the board of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of San Diego and the board of the United Nations Association in San Diego. Even though I graduated over four years ago, I am still learning so much every day. My advice for current students would be to intern and/or to volunteer as much as one can while in college - never stop gaining new skills. Sometimes it takes pure luck and just being at the right place and at the right time to gain employment after college. Interning and volunteering offers you more opportunities to catch that lucky break. On that note, Plant With Purpose offers a slew of internship opportunities each quarter: such as development, grant writing, finance, and programs. You can find out more information at www.plantwithpurpose.org/internships.

Caitlin Moe - Working with Family AIDS Care & Education Services in Kisumu, Kenya

Caitilin Moe, Class of 2013

Degree: Bachelor of Arts, International Studies Political Science

Occupation: Working with Family AIDS Care & Education Services in Kisumu, Kenya

I am currently working for Family AIDS Care and Education Services (FACES), which is a partnership between UCSF and Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), and is funded by the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Specifically, I am working in the Cervical Cancer Screening Program (CCSP), which is a program under FACES, on a research study for UCSF on the attitudes and beliefs of people towards cervical cancer. I am living in a very small town on the shores of Lake Victoria, Kenya.

For my job, I do a lot of field work and I cover 11 hospitals in two districts. In addition to conducting surveys, I do screening for women who wish not to be seen by a male health provider. Since there are no female nurses stationed at the clinic, I am there to make sure there are adequate supplies for cervical cancer screening at each health facility, conducting training for community health workers to give health talks on cervical cancer screenings in their communities, and researching ways to get men on board to bring their wives in for screening (many women cite needing their husbands' permission as a deterrent to being screened). One of the exciting things about this project is that we are utilizing a new method for cervical cancer screening that uses table vinegar to coagulate cellular proteins which becomes an acetowhite lesion after 90 seconds that can be easily seen by the naked eye when there is a pre-cancerous lesion. It has been proven very effective in resource-poor situations and has gained a lot of attention in the past year.

I love my work because it is a perfect combination of research and patient interaction. It is also really interesting to learn how to work as a member of a group in a different culture since all of my colleagues are Kenyan. I had a hard time at first because I thought my Swahili had gotten really bad before I realized here that in this region, which is predominantly Luo, people mix English, Swahili, and Luo all together. So now I am trying to learn Luo, which is entirely different than any language I have heard before, but sounds vaguely French. It has been great to see first-hand in real life some of the things that my Honors thesis showed in numbers. I have been able to really get a feel for the subtle, yet definite, tension between Luos and Kikuyus, the wariness people have in their trust for soldiers and police, but most of all the lack of change in government support, even from Luo people, even where I am in the Nyanza province, after the terrible 2008 elections.

Thetan Noel Nguyen - Quality Engineer at Lytx, Inc.

Thetan Noel Nguyen, Class of 2010

Degree: Bachelor of Arts, International Studies - Economics

Occupation: Quality Engineer at Lytx, Inc.

I am a Quality Engineer at Lytx, Inc., in San Diego. Our flagship product, DriveCam, powered by LytxTM, helps companies advance the safety and efficiency of their drivers. My day-to-day responsibilities include managing the quality and business relationships with our outsourcing partners in various global locations including the Philippines, India, and Malaysia. During my undergraduate years, I had no real conviction or path in my mind of where I was going to take the IS degree. I only knew that I wanted to work abroad in China. Even up until the day I turned in my INTL capstone paper, I was unsure of my next steps and was frightened about the prospects. For me, I stumbled upon my first job, the company I currently work at, through a Craigslist ad. From there, I worked my way into process management and eventually got certified for the Six Sigma Green Belt at UCSD Extensions. To those who are majoring in IS and feel uncertain about the careers out there, the best advice I have for you is to travel, volunteer in international programs, and do whatever it is you can to expose yourself to the international arena. Take full advantage of every connection you build along the way and every experience you gain. The journey you take may lead you to your future career. Whether it is a long or short journey of test and trials, you will get there – don't give up.

Michael Plouffe - Lecturer in International Political Economy, University College London School of Public Policy

Michael Plouffe, Class of 2007

Degree: Bachelor of Arts, International Studies - Economics

Occupation: Lecturer in International Political Economy, University College London School of Public Policy

I initially chose the International Studies (Economics, Political Science) major because it provided more flexibility than the tracks offered through Economics. I still ended up taking a number of extra math and economics courses and ended up with an economics minor. Along the way, I studied abroad over two summers, at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität in Freiburg, and Pembroke College, Cambridge. The flexibility in the ISP curriculum allowed me to take a number econometrics courses, which have proved their worth countless times. I was also able to dabble in research through several 199's, the ISP honors program, and paid work as a research assistant. Research was a central component of several career options that interested me, and these experiences were invaluable in giving me a further sense of direction.

I began my PhD at UCSD immediately after graduating; the university has an unparalleled reputation for political-economy research and training. As I neared completion of my dissertation, I was offered a permanent research and teaching position at University College London's School of Public Policy. This had been  my dream job since I studied at Cambridge, and after a year in London, it has certainly has been living up to my expectations. My advice to current ISP students is threefold: study abroad, because it really is as great as everyone says it is; take advantage of intellectual opportunities outside the classroom while you are at UCSD, because you won't have the time for them once you begin full-time work and you may discover a new interest; finally, especially for those focusing on economics, take as many econometric/statistical analysis courses as possible, as these provide training in highly valuable and transferable skills.

Rui Wang - Project Manager of Corporate Strategy & Development, Dipont Education Management Co.

Rui Wang, Class of 2012

Degree: Bachelor of Arts, International Studies - Political Science and Chinese Studies

Occupation: Project Manager of Corporate Strategy & Development, Dipont Education Management Co.

As an American born Chinese, I chose to major in International Studies - Political Science specifically to take me abroad to my parents' native country after graduation; I just didn't know it would happen so fast and so smoothly. Through the UCEAP program, I completed my last senior semester at Fudan University in Shanghai, which is not only the best liberal arts institution in China, but one of the best universities in the world. During my time there, I was able to carry on the fine Triton tradition of studying hard and playing harder. Over the course of several months, I met a countless number of recruiters, headhunters, ex-pats at both multinational and domestic companies, and even a large network of UC and UCSD alumni. After graduating in June of 2012, I was immediately employed at China's largest private education management company, where I now work as an analyst and strategist for market research and expansion. Combined with the study abroad program through UCEAP, the amazing International Studies program at UCSD and its staff not only helped determine my career path, but served as critical stepping stones in achieving my dream of working and living in one of the most beautiful, modern, and vibrant (if not polluted and overpopulated) metropolises in the world. If I had to give one piece of advice to current ISP students - it would be to focus your studies on a country that interests you, its language, culture, and people, and then maximize your International Studies experience by actually studying, living, and working there! 

Mary Zweifel - Visual and Media Anthropology Graduate Student, Freie Universitaet Berlin

Mary Zweifel, Class of 2005

Degree: Bachelor of Arts, International Studies - Anthropology 

Occupation: Visual and Media Anthropology Graduate Student, Freie Universitaet Berlin

Upon entering UC San Diego in 2001, my interest in a field with a global orientation was certain. I changed my major from politics to international studies as soon as ISP was established. An emphasis in anthropology cultivated a culturally specific and historically situated perspective of international dynamics. I was inspired by a wide breadth of classes, and drawn to a minor in religion and a regional focus in African studies. UCEAP provided me with a unique opportunity to deepen my studies at the University of Ghana in 2004, and I continue to hold this experience very dear.

I worked at the University of San Francisco for six years, building and co-directing the M.A. in International Studies program and mentoring and academically advising undergraduate students in the B.A. in International Studies program and area studies minors. While at USF, I pursued graduate studies in human rights education and co-organized the USF Human Rights Film Festival. My interest in film and anthropology led me to the Freie Universitaet Berlin, where I am working towards an M.A. in Visual and Media Anthropology.

I am currently applying to Ph.D. programs in anthropology with the ultimate aim of teaching and researching at the intersection of art and ethnography. Any advice I can offer to current ISP students mainly centers on pursuing curiosity. University life is rich with events, lectures, and opportunities to connect with others who share your interests. Build relationships with professors, graduate students, and fellow undergrads. It's a big campus, but lasting connections will serve you well. Living in Europe, most people I meet speak a minimum of two languages. Language classes, and immersion in places where those languages are spoken, will widen your opportunities. I took Spanish classes at UC San Diego and interned with an international community foundation and literacy through the arts program, both working at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lastly, seek out intercultural exchange whether or not you are able to go abroad. I really believe international studies students are adept at bridging difference; this is an invaluable skill to promote understanding.