Graduate Student Profiles - Latin American Studies
Kelly Usher – Social Policy in Brazil and the New Left in South America
Graduate Program: M.A., Latin American Studies & M.G.P.S. in Global Policy Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; Focus: Social Policy in Brazil
Undergraduate Degree: B.A., Spanish & International Studies, University of Mississippi
What can you tell me about life as a LLILAS graduate student?
As a graduate student, the biggest challenge has been learning to balance my time. I've always been the kind of individual who couldn't say no to an opportunity, and I've had to learn that skill. I choose my activities wisely and restrain my extracurriculars to the things that really matter to me. I work 20 hours a week and take 12 hours of classes. On top of that, I'm the managing editor of the online student journal for the LBJ School which takes about 10 hours a week. I will also be one of the conference coordinators for the Latin American student conference next year, another major time commitment. Making time for these activities outside of work and school means that I have to be really committed to staying up late to do my homework. LLILAS coursework requires a lot of reading and a lot of research, so after class I tend to spend my time in the Benson Collection research or studying. I do more studying at home after the Benson closes. So far, I've never felt too tired though! I love the work that I'm doing in LLILAS and outside of school, and the effort it takes to accomplish all of these things is well worth it.
To recharge from all of this work, I try to set aside time to do interesting things with friends. During the week, I generally attend one evening event. This event might have a purpose to it, it might not - the main thing that I look for in deciding what to attend is whether it is something that I will find relaxing and whether it is something with people whose company I enjoy. Then, during the weekend I set Friday night and Saturday night aside to spend with friends and relax. The morning and afternoon of Friday and Saturday are intense times for study, and Sunday is also a day for writing and researching. It's really key to make sure you get this time to yourself so you don't burn out - pacing is important when it comes to completing research and homework.
What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
My typical routine starts at 8 AM, when I go to work. I generally work mornings and go to class in the afternoons, although it may be reversed. After class, I may attend a talk or LLILAS event if there is something related to my interests and research. I may also have a meeting or two related to the LBJ online journal or the ILASSA conference after class. Last year, I was an IE mentor for a UT undergrad, so once a week I met with my intern for a meeting after class. If there are no events or meetings, I generally go to the library to begin research. I work there until around 9 PM, then head home for dinner and to finish up any homework that I have left.
What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
For me, the main attraction of LLILAS is the community. LLILAS is a tight-knit group of students who love to share their experiences and talents with one another. There are plenty of events to attend, both for fun and for volunteer purposes, and at every single one there is bound to be at least two languages flying around the room and most likely a lot of dancing going on, with or without music. The energy level of the students in this school, even in the hardest part of the semester, is exhilarating to be around.
LLILAS also gives its students plenty of opportunities to do things they would not normally do, like organize and lead a student conference, join a protest, organize conversation groups, translate for people around Austin, and volunteer around the community in many capacities. LLILAS is about more than just the class work, and that is something that I think is so important about this graduate school.
Where are you in the MA sequence?
I have just finished my first year of my program, and have been doing exclusively coursework for both of my degrees as well as gaining the professional experience required by the LBJ School of Public Affairs. I'll be continuing coursework in both degrees next year. I'm also beginning the thesis process in August 2010 to complete it by May 2012.
Can you tell us about your research?
Since I've just finished the first of three years, the specific topic of my research is still a little fuzzy. I can, however, say that I will be focusing on social policy in Brazil. I plan to do research on the role of civil society and NGOs in the implementation of Brazil's extensive social policy entitled Fome Zero, or Zero Hunger. This policy intends to combat not only hunger but also the roots of poverty to eradicate it; it's been highly successful, although with its flaws, and has attracted a lot of international attention for its unique approach to common problems. One of its successes is its inclusion of civil society and NGOs in the implementation of aid and relief projects, and I wish to study both how much of voice these organizations have and what they have accomplished as well as how that role could be expanded.
I also hope to do research in a comparative study of the social policies of the "new left" in Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil. The "new left" in Uruguay was the topic of my bachelor's thesis, and I want to continue in this trajectory along with my thesis work.
Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
I wrote a 95-page thesis entitled Capturing the banner of batllismo: The Frente Amplio and the end of the Uruguayan two-party system. It was a historical approach to understanding the sudden 2005 victory of the young leftist coalition Frente Amplio in Uruguay - I studied how this victory occurred and what it meant for the Uruguayan system.
I would definitely recommend research for undergrads. It gives you plenty of experience in what you would be doing extensively in graduate school, and helps you improve your performance in all your coursework. It also "de-mystifies" graduate school in that you've already attacked a major research project, which is one of the scarier parts of graduate school. Finally, having research allows potential graduate schools to evaluate more in depth whether you are a good candidate to attend their school and/or to receive financial aid.
Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
This past year, I held a University Recruiting Fellowship, a full merit fellowship. Next year, I am the proud recipient of the Debra J. Herring Fellowship, which will largely cover tuition, so I will still not be taking an assistantship.
What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
The greatest difference is perhaps the reading load. Although I was assigned a good deal of reading for my classes in undergrad, graduate classes have far more readings assigned, and these readings may be more technical, more detailed, or require more background knowledge than readings assigned in undergrad. Also, to participate in discussions and be able to contribute to the class, it's best to do these readings in full! There may also be recommended readings, and although these aren't required, they are extremely helpful for your personal research or simply to inform you more on a topic you find interesting. In addition to the reading for coursework, there is also reading for research. Without employing smart techniques for reading, all of this can be overwhelming.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
I wish that I had known then what I know now about research. I have gotten so much more adept at finding articles and primary sources as well as skimming books for appropriate information, and this is largely because I consulted many professors and library staff for tips. Although you may already know some of what they tell you, it's worth listening to anything they have to say. Searches in online databases can be so much more fruitful with the right approach. Professors may have connections you need to get primary sources or research from a graduate student at another school working on a similar topic. There are many other things they can tell you to speed up and deepen your research process.
What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a Latin American studies program?
- Contact the graduate coordinator of the program that interests you and see if he or she can put you in touch with a current student in that program.
- Research the faculty involved in that program: Do they research what interests you? What have they been writing? Could you see yourself benefitting from the classes they teach? Is their experience in the areas that you wish to research or work in? You may even wish to contact a professor.
- Do some reading or research in your own time to hone in on what you wish to specialize in - Latin American studies is an extremely broad discipline and it's important to know what you wish to do within LAS as well as what discipline (e.g. political science, sociology, etc) you wish to employ in your research. This helps you determine if the program you're considering will be the appropriate one for what you want to do.
If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your next choice?
I was also seriously considering both Tulane University and the University of Florida, although I had not narrowed it down between the two.
What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in Latin American studies to check out?
I love El Chiguire Bipolar. It's a satirical website in Venezuela that exposes what the government there is doing and holds them accountable for it. They do it in a hilarious way too - they've been described as the Stephen Colbert of Venezuela. Very funny videos and posts, and extremely informative too!
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope to work in Latin America in development immediately after graduating from UT, but for the long term I intend to get my Ph.D and become a professor at the university level in Latin American studies - maybe even at UT!
Do you have a “grad school survival tip” you would like to share?
Be selective about what you get involved in, especially at first! Early on in the semester there are tons of clubs, programs, and organizations to become a part of, and it's easy to get swept up in the excitement and join them all. Wait for a little while - choose only what really interests you and what is really worth your time. When classes begin to heat up, you'll be glad you've been selective, and you'll be able to really invest in what you did join rather than being over-stressed and spread too thin.