Author: Michael

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 led 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

Studies in Switzerland

My name is Aaron Plotke, and I am a senior at the University of Connecticut with a dual degree in Nutritional Science and Health Policy (my IMJR). For the fall semester, I decided to study abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. The program I am participating in focuses on Global Health and Development Policy. We are covering a wide range of topics from global governance systems and health to food security and international health regulations.

Aaron Plotke and colleagues
The students in the program. Aaron is in the back row, second from the right.

The program has been (and continues to be) an incredible academic and cultural experience. We are conducting multiple research projects from local case studies focusing on health issues in Switzerland and Morocco to a final month-long independent study project on a topic of our choosing. Geneva is home to many experts in global health and development who work for international organizations; we attend lectures by them, network with them, and interview them for our independent research projects. In addition, as part of the program’s goal of cultural immersion, three times a week we are taking classes in French, the primary language in Geneva. We have also taken a few short field trips to other cities in Switzerland, such as Bern to visit the Swiss Development and Cooperation Program, and a week-long excursion to Morocco. This was one of my favorite parts of the program. We lived with host families in the old city of Rabat (called Medinas) while hearing experts from local non-government organizations (NGOs). We were as integrated into the local culture as one week allowed. The first time we walked into my host families building, I found myself in the midst of a four-day celebration for their new born cousin, in which they immediately invited my roommate and me to join. This was definitely a highlight of our trip to Morocco.

As I reflect on my study abroad experience, I couldn’t have picked a better program to complement my majors in Nutritional Science and Health Policy. The School for International Training’s program in global health and development policy has expanded my knowledge into the global arena and has also given me a better idea of what my future career may look like. Studying the work of international and non-governmental organizations has certainly made an impact on what I will do after graduation. Networking with experts in the global health and development sectors may lead to internships and work opportunities in the future!

by Aaron Plotke
IMJR: Health Policy

Emily Roller: User Experience Intern

I’m a senior majoring in Digital User Behavior. What’s that you ask? Digital User Behavior combines two of my passions: understanding human behavior (psychology) and web design (visual communication and digital media design). I’m interested in the field of Usability Research, which tests software products with users to see whether they are usable and how they can be improved to better meet users’ needs and requirements.

This summer I was a User Experience Intern with Tyler Technologies, a company that develops software solutions for the public sector (municipal governments, schools, and utilities). Through networking with another IMJR at UConn (now graduated), a Human Resources representative at Tyler actually found me on LinkedIn based on my university and stated interests.

Tyler Techologies building
Tyler Technologies building

My major uniquely prepared me for this opportunity. Through the psychology and communication portions of my IMJR, I learned about the drivers of human behavior, how habits are formed, common mental shortcuts, paths to persuasion and how people perceive visual information. Additionally, I learned to design and analyze participant studies as well as conduct research in the Judgment and Decision Making lab on campus. I applied these skills to usability testing in the lab, which involves testing new and existing products with users to see how they can be improved.

I took what I learned from my observations to conduct my own usability tests on products throughout the summer at Tyler, both internally with employees and externally with clients. We tracked the number of user clicks, task completion rates, and overall user impressions. I created my own prototypes using clickable mockups or interactive demos created using the code I’d learned in my web design class. I also worked on designing new screens for two existing programs, giving them an updated look and making them easier to use. Finally, a colleague and I conducted ethnographic research with clients, in the form of unstructured interviews, which looks specifically at user goals instead of product features.

The internship this summer taught me three key lessons. The first is the importance of asking for help. As an intern, I wanted to look competent and prove to my colleagues I could do the tasks on my own. Further, I didn’t want to annoy my new colleagues with questions. I was working on a specific project in Javascript, attempting to recreate an app a fellow developer had created. I spent about three days on this before finally caving and asking him for help. In just an hour, he explained to me his app, his thinking, and how to adapt it for my purposes. I learned more from him in that hour than I could have in my own struggling. As I began to ask colleagues for help, I came to understand the importance of other ideas and perspectives. Often others can pick up on things you may never notice. Second, I learned that you don’t know what you don’t know. I found that in early kickoff meetings, I felt confident that I had a handle on the design issue at hand and it wasn’t until conversations with clients, developers, and colleagues that I began to uncover the layers inherent to the problem. I’ve learned that when I feel confident, I should keep digging in to the problem. Finally, I’ve learned that learning doesn’t stop at school. At a technology company like Tyler, we are always learning new updates, methods, and technologies. I’ve seen that the difference between successful and unsuccessful programmers seems to be adaptability and excitement to learn; without these key traits it can be easy to be frustrated by the changes inherent in this type of work.

I’m excited to take what I’ve learned this summer and apply it to my next projects this semester – working on my thesis, working in the UITS Web Development lab, and working as the Digital Communications Director for Community Outreach.

by Emily Roller
IMJR: Digital User Behavior

A Peruvian Experience

This summer I lived in Lima, Peru and interned with the Volunteer Affairs department of MEDLIFE, a non-profit organization that works with low income families in developing countries. Its main goals are to bring medical services to those in poverty and to build relationships with their communities.

Alexa Friedman (bottom center) at work
Alexa Friedman (bottom center) at work

In the United States, one often doesn’t see the gap between rich and poor. In Peru, wealth disparities are clearly evident. Thirty percent of the Peruvian population live in Lima, which creates a very concentrated mass of people. To be considered below the poverty line in Peru one has to make less than 348 Sol a month (approximately $116 US dollars), and the poverty rate is about 22% (which is a sharp decline from about 55% in 2005). The poor usually lack basic services such as clean water, electricity and sanitary facilitates.

Although the government provides some health care, called Seguro Integral de Salud (SIS), it is difficult to access. I have seen first hand what a patient’s hospital experience can look like: the wait is usually about 4-8 hours, with no waiting rooms and no guarantee you will see a doctor. To even get an appointment, one has to go to the hospital in person (early if one expects to be seen) for an appointment that will likely be 4-6 weeks later.

As a Volunteer Affairs Intern, I had many different responsibilities. Throughout the week I would be either in the office, in the field, or on a patient follow up. Some of my daily tasks in the office included developing curriculum, coordinating volunteer trips, answering incoming communications and meetings with other departments. One major project I worked on was developing a fundraiser for a school in Kirua, Tanzania. This school is nothing more than a simple room with no bathroom, no kitchen, and insufficient desks for all the students. Many deaths due to diarrhea or parasites are caused by the lack of sanitation facilities. MEDLIFE is working to raise $11,500 to build a bathroom, a kitchen and to donate 29 desks.

Lima, Peru
Lima, Peru

On days in the field, I supervised a clinic or worked on a project. If I were supervising a clinic I helped set up the mobile clinics, helped guide volunteers and translated. The projects we worked on were negotiated between MEDLIFE and the community. The community told us what they need most and we helped them build it. The community participation facilitates community pride, which makes our work more sustainable. After our patients checked in to our mobile clinics, if our doctors and nurses determined they needed more continuous care, they were enrolled in our patient follow up program. A MEDLIFE staff member or intern would accompany a MEDLIFE nurse to the patients’ homes to do checkups, deliver medicine, or complete socioeconomic assessments. MEDLIFE covers anywhere from 50-90% of the patients’ costs for however long is necessary.

I also worked on a developmental project for Jorge, one our patients. Jorge suffers from brain atrophy, which means as time goes on, his motor and cognitive abilities diminish. Because of this, he has lost is ability to walk. We provided him with a wheelchair, but even so he was not able to leave his home. We asked his family what we could do, and his wife asked us to build a ramp so he could go outside and play with his children. His son asked us to please help make his dad happy again. As a team we raised $700 in 7 hours! Below is a photo of the before and after when we finished our project.

Over the course of the past three months, I have learned so much about health, public health, myself and the world around me. One of the most important lessons I have learned is the importance of having an interdisciplinary perspective. Approaching the inequalities in health requires some knowledge of human development, human rights, economics, history, sociology and much more. I found that I was most successful in my work when I applied knowledge from an array of different courses. In addition, I solidified my passion for the study of global health. This Peruvian experience has most definitely been a step towards a future in which I work for more equal access to healthcare and for health as a human right.

by Alexa Friedman
Individualized major: Human Health Sciences and Development

Jorge's house before
Jorge’s house before
Jorge's house after
Jorge’s house after

A Barcelona Experience

“I’m in love with cities I’ve never seen and people I’ve never met.”
-Melody Truong

My name is Asha Chowdhury, and I am a senior at the University of Connecticut with a major in International Media and Promotion. This summer I traveled to Barcelona, Spain, for an internship that changed my life.

Asha in Barcelona
Asha in Barcelona

The internship was with YouBarcelona, a marketing and public relations agency that works with the biggest and most well-known nightlife venues in Barcelona: Opium, Bling Bling, Pacha, Hotel W, Shoko, Otto Zutz, etc. I cannot express how excited I was to learn more about this young and lively company. As YouBarcelona’s marketing and social media intern, my tasks included managing a number of their social media accounts, creating content for their website and translating it into other languages, and reviewing venues on Trip Advisor. This was both exciting and scary, because while I had a gut feeling this was where I was supposed to be, I was very afraid of not being happy.  Fortunately, I fell in love with my work the moment I stepped into the office.

YouBarcelona meeting room
YouBarcelona meeting room

I had two amazing supervisors, Eric and Jorge, who assigned me a number of Instagram accounts and a fake Facebook, where I was constantly promoting venues and responding to customers.  This task was one of the easier ones, but it is vital for the venues to gain recognition and brand loyalty. Customers were very engaged with the social media accounts, and, by the end of my internship, I gained ten thousand followers. This was the most the company had seen in that short an amount of time. Secondly, I created landing pages and blog posts for the English version of YouBarcelona’s website at least three times a week. The goal was to increase our visibility on Google, drive more traffic to our websites, create more brand recognition, and improve our customer relationships. This task allowed me to be innovative in ways I didn’t know I could. Lastly, and this was one of the most tedious tasks, I translated web content for each day in English, Spanish, Catalan, German, French, and Italian. Since tourism is extremely important in Barcelona, it is crucial that we have a multilingual website that can build international relationships. I have little knowledge of these languages, however, which proved very difficult in the beginning.  By doing the translations I gained some basic knowledge of each language and more experience for the international aspect of my major.

Upon returning to the United States, I can honestly say I created the perfect major for myself. I was able to integrate my internship with my major and found that work wasn’t work anymore. I found myself enjoying the whole process. And through writing for social media, blogs, and the web, I enhanced my professional skills. In the future I can only grow more.

by Asha Chowdhury
Individualized Major: International Media and Promotion

Capstone: Emma Sifre

Thesis: Committed to Inequality? How Learning about Inequality Changes Preferences for Redistribution

Thesis Supervisor: Thomas Hayes, Political Science

Over the past forty years, economic inequality in the United States has increased to such extreme levels that it has distorted the American economy and the health of American Democracy. Research on the effects of inequality on our economic and political institutions has been comprehensive, but recent events have shed light on the importance of studying public opinion on economic inequality as well. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, for example, was a grassroots campaign focused on inequality. Although division along class lines in politics is not new, this year’s election cycle has mobilized huge groups of American voters around the issue of economic inequality. It has tapped into deeply rooted sentiments about how much people have and what they feel they deserve. The significant consequences of economic inequality, and the newfound vigor with which people are mobilizing around the issue, has prompted me to focus my Honors thesis on public opinion about it.

I used a survey to test how participants’ beliefs about the fairness of the economic system affects their preferences for inequality-reducing policies. I then tested whether increasing the saliency of inequality by prompting participants to engage in learning tasks has a long-term effect on preferences. One major problem with designing a survey experiment is that public opinion is easily swayed by inflammatory rhetoric or trigger words. It was important that, in testing preferences, I used very carefully selected language to ensure that the results were not skewed by emotionally-charged reactions to words like “welfare” or “socialism.” Creating the survey required intensive research into public opinion data and a pilot study using different variations of words.

Emma Sifre at Frontiers
Emma Sifre at Frontiers

I found that participants who held meritocratic beliefs were slightly more supportive of programs intended to reduce inequality, but that the effect of learning tasks was only significant in the short-term. This finding was particularly interesting in a time when economic inequality has become a highly visible issue; it indicates that increasing the saliency of the issue may not follow citizens into the polling booths.

by Emma Sifre
Individualized Major: The Interdisciplinary Study of Economic Inequality

Capstone: Jessica Topper

Jessica Topper
Jessica Topper

“What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents.”
– Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Throughout my final year at the University of Connecticut, I have dedicated my Honors senior thesis to researching the latest crisis in the Middle East. The political and economic ramifications of oppressive regimes and the emergence of extremist non-state actors are important, but it’s the dire position of the Syrian people that is the focal point of my thesis.

The Middle East, as a region, has overwhelming numbers of displaced people due to political instability and its resulting terror and destruction. At the beginning of 2016, for example, over half of the Syrian population had been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. Unfortunately, it is all too common for those who have fled to end up in limbo. Their lost identity and sense of not belonging is difficult enough, but refugees are often objects of sluggish bureaucratic processes and incoherent immigration policies in the nations in which they are seeking asylum. My thesis will explore the refugees’ migration patterns and the ramifications of their arrival in other nations. A vital aspect of this research will be a comparative study of how the United States and countries in Europe and the Middle East grant refugee status and asylum to people from Syria.

The violence and oppression utilized by the Syrian government has escalated a domestic issue to one of international scope. Countries concerned with their interests in the region, and with threats to their security, must balance military response with isolationism, and judge the political consequences associated with accepting the victims of this crisis. This problem has been at the forefront of leaders’ agendas around the world. As each country responds to this crisis, the range in immigration policies has become increasingly polarized. What are the actualities of Syrian immigration? Is the heightened concern over Syrian refugees and asylum seekers just a wave of paranoia? How does the United States compare to Europe and the Middle East when it comes to assisting those displaced? This thesis will explore the realities of the Syrian civil war in terms of statistical data, policy changes, and the impact on countries involved in the conflict. It is inarguable that the Syrian civil war has caused the people of this country trauma many cannot imagine. With much confusion around the world over Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the development of proxy wars within the country, and how these refugees will actually affect other nations, it is imperative to understand the entirety of this international crisis.

by Jessica Topper
Individualized Major: International Relations (focus on the Middle East)

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

Monika Coello’s Italian Experience

This past summer I spent six weeks in Florence, Italy through the UConn Business Summer program. I left Storrs with a little bit of excitement, a little bit of fear, and all the questions in the world about what these next six weeks would hold. At the time, I had just decided to become a double major and add Consumer Behavior to my nearly completed Psychology major. I decided that this experience would be the best way to truly know if I belonged in the business world. The program included two courses led by UConn faculty: “Business in Italy: International and Entrepreneurial Perspective” and “History of Culture and Food in Italy.”

While getting acquainted with the breathtaking city of Florence, my business course took me on interactive trips to six different businesses in the neighboring cities. From authentic paper marbling to a winery run from a historic Medici castle, my classmates and I experienced an eclectic collection of business settings. My first trip was to a pizza company that was unlike any other business we would visit. Contrary to the family-centered way of business that is common in Italy, this company had it eyes set on international expansion while maintaining authentic values. After a tour of the facility, the business executives presented their plans for expansion and engaged in an open discussion about the challenges and opportunities for their company and asked for our recommendations. It was after this trip that I knew I was in the right place.

Tuscan Vineyard
Tuscan Vineyard

As the weeks flew by, we were tasked with evaluating each business, giving our thoughts on what they did well and what we felt could be improved, and constantly comparing and contrasting the American way of business to that of Italians. Despite all of the papers and assignments, we were still able to travel and explore on our days off. As our classes only ran from Monday to Thursday, I had the privilege of seeing the beautiful island of Capri, the ruins of Pompeii, and the magnificent shore of the Adriatic Sea. Those six weeks abroad gave me one of the most memorable, beneficial, and absolutely fantastic experiences of my life. I may have arrived in Florence with apprehension, but I left with every assurance for which I could have asked.

Florentine Lunch
Florentine Lunch

Ariana Scurti, Social Entrepreneur

During the summer of 2015, I traveled to Guatemala with the Social Entrepreneur Corps through the 8-week UConn study abroad program. It was a fantastic experience and program, and I learned more during that time than in any other period of my life. Perfectly complementing my individualized major in International Relations (with a focus in Human Rights and Development) and my traditional major in Spanish, this program reaffirmed my desire to work in the human rights and economic development sector. We worked with students from all over the country and different universities such as UConn, Duke, Babson, Boston University, University of North Carolina, and Cornell. Our community partner, Soluciones Comunitarias, is run by absolutely amazing people, and we worked very closely with them during this whole process. They use the MicroConsignment Model (MCM), a sustainable and impactful social business plan that mirrors microfinance initiatives in many ways.

Our big group was divided into three different teams: Esperanza, Oportunidad, and Impacto. My team, Esperanza, focused on eye care and eye health—this entailed running and organizing free eye exams for the local communities and finding the correct glasses or other products for the clients. This was the first year that they implemented the SVOne (as seen in the picture below), a device that took pictures of the client’s eyes and read what they needed for a distance prescription. As a team, we created a final report of over 100-pages with deliverables and instructions on how to carry out an effective campaign with the SVOne. This included everything from how to create strong relationships with local eye doctors to a way to properly manage the product sales.


We worked five to six days a week, but on our days off we were able to travel, hike, and explore the local community. On a weekend with two days off, we climbed Volcán Tajumulco, the highest point in Central America. We made it to the peak to watch the sun rise over the volcanoes in the distance (see picture below). It was one of the hardest, but most incredible physical challenges I’ve ever experienced. At UConn, I continue to work with Social Entrepreneur Corps as a Campus Advisor because I truly believe in the work that they are doing and I hope to help them continue and improve upon their vision in any way possible.