Reassessing International Development: Sarah Lawrence Students Lead the Way

Friday, April 20 was a busy day for the College. Between Dr. Arnold Krupat’s Farewell Symposium, the Poetry Festival and the Race Summit, the average Sarah Lawrence student would be hard pressed for time. However, at 9:30am, Reisinger Auditorium opened its doors to the First Annual Sarah Lawrence College Conference on International Development.

A year in the making, the Conference (fondly known as the Development Conference) involved long hours of planning, budgeting, fundraising and advertising. Enterprising senior, Meghan Roguschka developed the idea over May 2011, and before the fall semester started, had reached out to numerous colleges and universities in the Northeast to request submissions for original work relating to international development. Since fall, Meghan’s team expanded to include Dahlia Colman (’12), Robert Winslow (’12), Aman Banerji (’13), Preksha Krishna Kumar (’14), Valentina Mann (’14), Jing Min Chia (’13), Lina Ahmed Abushouk (’15) and Shoumik Battarcharya (’15).

The goal of the conference was to provide keen and ambitious undergraduates the opportunity to submit their original research to the scrutiny of their peers and professors. The conference was done in the style of professional, graduate-level conference, in order to show that undergraduates do produce high quality research and to give them a taste of what it a future in academia or professional school would be like.

Professor Jamee Moudud (SLC – Economics) kicked off the day with a presentation on the current state of international development and provided his critique of the existing discourse, which biases economic development over social equity and local agency. Dr. Moudud’s presentation was followed by the first set of student panels, which included Luis Lei (SLC ’12), Meghan Svoboda (Smith ’12) and Priscilla Liu (SLC ’13). Lei engaged the audience in his discussion on Argentina’s agricultural development, while Liu gave us a taste of the history of South Korean industrialization and economic development. However, it was Svoboda’s paper that changed the conversation, as she presented a study of economic development of Northampton, Massachusetts, which due to its location in the United States, rarely qualifies as a topic that falls under the field of ‘International Development’. Nonetheless, this was deliberate on the part of the organizing committee, who sought to bring different voices and to challenge the dominant paradigm that reserves the study of international development to the study of developing nations – or countries in the “Global South”.

As the crowd filtered in and out, heading to and from the other events being held on campus, the Conference powered on, this time discussing papers with a specific geographical focus. Dahlia Colman (SLC ’12) presented her work on Bhutan’s food security frameworks in light of market integration, based on fieldwork she had conducted in the country during the summer of 2010. Colman was followed by Sandra Pellerano (SLC ’12) who took the audience through her fieldwork on popular education in El Salvador, eliciting interest amongst students concerned with pedagogy in education. Tal Lee Anderman (Columbia ’12), concluded by exploring potential implications of palm oil production in Peru. Dr. Dominica Corva (SLC – Geography) proceeded – in his capacity as discussant – to field questions from the audience regarding their work. The panelists took Corva’s questions instride, and stood to prove that undergraduates could hold their own against professional criticism.

The final panel of the day was moderated by Dr. Elke Zuern (SLC – Politics), which contained papers that dealt with issues of political theory and political participation. The panel was led by Gabriel Sub (Bard ’13), who discussed the natural resource curse in Nigeria, followed by Sebastien Barreneche’s (SLC ’12) fascinating work on the role of participatory video in political empowerment and agency. The panel concluded with SLC’s Brigid Conroy (’12) arguing for a critical approach to the complexity of the role of the state in Indian dam construction and water management.

All the panelists surprised the audience and professors with their level of knowledge and professionalism regarding their papers. Many of them stood their ground against challenging questions posed by the discussing professors, responding to critiques and questions with poise. Their presentations reflected a confidence and charisma often assumed to be absent amongst undergraduates. Following the proceedings of the conference made me proud to be at an institution like Sarah Lawrence that encourages intensive research and critical thinking.

The proceedings of the day concluded with CUNY – NYC Technical College’s Karl Botchway as the keynote speaker. Botchway supplied some reflections on the future of international development and the ever-changing role of local communities in international politics. He concluded the day with a reminder that we should not stop thinking about our world in a critical manner in order to continue seeking sustainable solutions.

All in all, the day ended on a note of muted optimism. Participants left Reisinger with a belief that while we are faced with multiple problems in the world, critically engaging with the issues will allow us to develop viable solutions. As Roguschka and Moudud reiterated at the beginning and end of the day, the objective of Friday was to start the ball rolling on what could become a great academic tradition amongst undergraduates – one that is lead by Sarah Lawrence. Friday’s conference illustrated that the research of undergraduates can and should be valued as highly as graduate work, especially at an institution like Sarah Lawrence College. The quality of the papers presented was a testament to the rigor and intensity of the pedagogies at these undergraduate programs.

The Development Conference is seeking to become an annual event, to be held on a scale and level of professionalism comparable to graduate academic conferences. The organizers request that any student interested in being part of 2013’s Conference on Development Studies to contact dev_conf@googlegroups.com for more information.

The Organizing Committee would like to thank: Student Senate; SAS; The Office of the Dean of College, Dean of Studies, Dean of Student Affairs, Alumni Relations, and Communications; Departments of Politics, Geography and Economics; Wild Ginger Restaurant; College Events and all the participants that made this event a success.

Jing Min Chia – who goes by Jeamme, which is pronounced Jamie, a name her mother created – is a Malaysian who loves to eat, cook, write about food and ponder about everything related to food. She reads the BBC, Nature and The Economist like its no tomorrow because she believes it is theoretically possible – and important – to understand how the world actually works. At Sarah Lawrence College she studies Economics, Anthropology, French, Agriculture, Development, plus a medley of sciences and tries to convince her mother that the combination is a good idea.

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