Alumni

Alumnus Report: Ben Simmons-Telep

I am a proud graduate of the Individualized Major Program, and about four months ago, I made the difficult decision to leave a successful stint at my current job to pursue a graduate degree. I have submitted applications to a number of Master’s Degree programs in International Development Studies, all of which focus on preparing students with the technical skills and context to solve global issues of human well-being. As I await my admissions decisions, I have found myself reflecting on the confluence of events that have lead me down this particular career path.

After graduating high school, I moved to Lima, Peru as part of a student exchange program where I attended university classes, built a new community of friends, and became fluent in Spanish. During my time there, I was involved in several humanitarian aid projects which included working with local chapters of Rotary International to deliver hundreds of donated wheelchairs to remote Andean communities.

Ben with a friend
Ben with a friend

I returned home inspired, with a newfound commitment to humanitarian service and eager to create a project of my own that could help to alleviate the poverty and suffering that I had witnessed. I founded an aid project, which I called Project Peru. Over the course of two years, I raised over $8,000 to purchase school supplies, commodity baskets, and Christmas presents for over 300 families. Leveraging the network that I had formed in Peru, I worked closely with a number of local partners to distribute the supplies to rural Peruvian schools and orphanages during the holiday seasons of 2011 and 2012.

However, something was wrong. Despite the project’s objective success, I became disenchanted with its mission. I became aware of a dark side to humanitarian aid, characterized by oppressive power dynamics, class tensions, and patronage. In addition, the project’s impact was superficial, unsustainable and its whole premise lacked a strong empirical foundation. Gifting Christmas presents did not tangibly improve anyone’s condition and presumed a diagnosis that was not based on evidence. This realization led me down a line of questioning that ultimately shaped the trajectory of my career and studies during the ensuing years. I found myself asking questions such as, “How might I have used the money differently? Are there sustainable models for development that genuinely increase human well-being?”

In an effort to answer these questions, I turned to academics. At the University of Connecticut, I declared an individualized major in international relations with a focus on economic development and built an interdisciplinary curriculum designed to explore poverty through several diverse lenses, including anthropology, sociology, human rights, and microeconomics. I gravitated toward the structure provided by economic analysis and declared a second major in economics and a minor in human rights. My studies provided me with a solid foundation in economic analysis, but I struggled to reconcile classical economic theory with what I observed to be true with respect to the nature of human well-being – a condition that seemed to be less a function of consumption and income, and more a product of opportunities, freedoms, and communal relationships. This conflict was reflected in my senior capstone project which offered an interdisciplinary critique of economic interpretations of happiness.

Ben Simmons Telep at work
Ben at work

I became fascinated by the disruptive potential of social enterprise in the field of development, and after graduating I began working for a social enterprise start-up incubator. In my current role as Director of Programs, I have designed and implemented several successful high impact entrepreneurial programs, including a nationally awarded accelerator that has been associated with the creation of over 50 jobs and 3.5 million dollars of private investment.

I am pursuing a graduate degree in International Development Studies because I am ready to take the next step in my career. I believe that social innovation may play a major role in shaping the next chapter of global development, but in order to explore its application, I must first equip myself with a deep technical and theoretical understanding of current development practices and methodologies. As I reflect on my path over the past ten years, I am grateful to the IMJR program for providing me with both the support and latitude to pursue my interest in this field. The interdisciplinary approach was not only highly relevant to my professional experience after graduation, but it has provided me with a well-rounded academic foundation, and I am thrilled by the opportunity to continue my studies at the graduate level.

By Ben Simmons-Telep
IMJR: International Relations

IMJR Alum: Elise Ursin

Three months ago, I moved to Cambridge to become a Curriculum Writing Fellow at Bridge International Academies (or Bridge, for short). How and why I ended up at this company has everything to do with my time at UConn.

I graduated from the Individualized Major Program with a degree in International Relations. I was like pretty much everyone else I knew who devoted four years to studying global affairs: we all wanted to do something important. But how exactly do you achieve a global impact? And how do you do it responsibly, without it being a vanity project?

Elise Ursin with Bridge students in Africa
Elise Ursin, with poster of Bridge Students

Bridge opened its first academy in Nairobi, Kenya in 2009. Since then, the company has opened over 400 schools and expanded into Uganda, Nigeria, and soon India. It controls every aspect of creating and managing the schools, from building the academies to running the classroom. Scale is Bridge’s secret to success: using technology, data, and some heavy initial investments, Bridge takes advantage of efficiencies that reduce overhead costs and allow for enormous reach (without sacrificing academic quality). That’s why I have the opportunity to directly impact the education of hundreds of kids on a daily basis.

A day in the life of a Curriculum Writing Fellow is busy, challenging, and gratifying. We write the textbooks handed to our pupils every day. We come up with the math problems they do for homework every night. And perhaps most interestingly, we write the teacher guides that their instructors read, word-for-word, in every class, every day. Though scripted lessons are a controversial method in the United States, Bridge’s massive data team has found that they work really well in our academies. In countries with far fewer trained and quality teachers than the U.S., writing lessons and delivering them on teacher tablets allows us to maintain a high standard of quality for each pupil at an affordable cost. And by using teacher tablets, Bridge can compile data in real time about each individual classroom and use it to constantly improve our approach. In other words, we are always striving to do better.

And I get to be a part of it. Knowing that the hard work I invest in my job actually means something, and has impact, is incredibly satisfying. The fact that hundreds of kids are going to read what I write motivates me to create the best, most creative lessons I possibly can. I leave work every day feeling like I’ve done the best thing I possibly could with my time. As a student myself studying International Relations just a few years ago, this is what I strove to do.

by Elise Ursin

IMJR Alum: Michael Jann

Do you wonder what Individualized Major alums are doing?

Here is feature story on one alum, who created an individualized major at the intersection of Natural Resources and the Environment and English, back in the late 1970s, when the program was still young and was housed in a unit called the “Center for Educational Innovation” located in Wood Hall.

Meet Michael Jann, who graduated in 1980, and has been a comedy writer for Leno and Fallon.

Michael Jann
Michael Jann