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Student Spotlight

Read about this month’s International Studies Student Spotlight. Students were asked to share an influential experience they had that connected to their International Studies major or minor.

November 2018

Piaofan Cai

BA International Studies (Comparative Culture and Identity); minor, Asian Studies ‘19

Hometown: Anhui Province, China

Affiliations: Students Board: Edward Ginsberg Center; Charity Awareness, Circle K International in Michigan; Global Wolverines

“In my first year at the University of Michigan, as an international transfer student, I was very hesitant and confused when thinking about choosing my major. Gradually, I found I was attracted to classes focusing on comparative culture, history, and art, which led me to major in International Studies and the sub-plan path of Comparative Culture and Identity.

I am always curious about the ‘unknown’ and I like to try things that I have never tried, or even imagined to do before. Fortunately, my International Studies major and the Program in International and Comparative Studies (PICS) provided me with multiple opportunities and resources. Once I took this first step, I was able to find more roads leading to the ‘unknown’ with great views.

I spent two semesters separately in Denmark and Singapore, with funding provided by PICS. When I was making plans for summer break, I found out about the Donia Human Rights Center Korean-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellowship through PICS. Coincidentally, I took a class about the history and politics on the Korean Peninsula and completed a research paper about the psychological trauma of North Korean refugees in the South. I hoped to continue my research on the topic of North Korean refugees, and I decided to apply for the fellowship.

I spent four weeks in Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) in Seoul, South Korea. During my stay, I tried to narrow down my scope and specifically focus on the educational issues of North Korean refugee young adults in Seoul. I have studied and interned abroad by myself in the past, but this opportunity was my first time to do research independently.

While working on my research proposals, I talked with the professors in SKKU who specialize in the transnational issues of human rights. At the same time, I reached out to different NGOs and organizations in Seoul that aim to support North Korean refugees. By having interviews with the workers and volunteers in some NGOs and organizations, I gained helpful resources and information, which further helped me to complete my research paper and review policy implications.

However, the whole process was not smooth: I was rejected by some organizations or misunderstood; I was too nervous to remember the questions I planned to ask during my first interview; and I lost myself on the way to a local NGO. But it was just these experiences that kept broadening my understanding and enriching my critical thinking on human rights issues. I am so grateful of all these experience in Seoul.

Sometimes, I wish I could jump out of the frames of the systematical theories in class. However, when I am overwhelmed by the information in reality, I realize that I need to continue solidifying the base of my knowledge. Therefore, it is essential to apply my International Studies education to hands-on experiences and practice. Thanks to the programs and support from the PICS, I will keep staying curious, keep learning, and keep taking the roads to the “unknown.”

Future plans: “In the pursuit of the global experience, I am studying abroad in London this fall semester. I hope I can manage my time in London properly, I am going to explore the city, and I am excited for the classes introducing the history and culture of London. As a senior, I also am beginning applications for master programs. I have decided to apply for master programs in International Studies or International Relations. I wish to continue advanced study in transnational human rights issues, where I can apply my mission and determination of speaking for the minority from a critical perspective within a global context.”

Read about past International Studies Student Spotlights: