From E Street to Asia: An Interview with Julia Collins

OID: Tell us about yourself: what program are you in, what are you studying, and what made you choose this field for your Master’s?

Julia Collins

Julia Collins

Julia Collins: I’m from California, born and raised. My mom is Hungarian and growing up, we spent a lot of time in Europe visiting relatives. Although ethnically Hungarian, my mom was born in communist Romania and has crazy stories about being pulled out of school to pick corn and forced to participate in government rallies. Her experiences and the realization that my mom’s struggle is not an anomaly always stuck with me. I studied political science at UCLA with a focus in international relations and studied abroad, but still wasn’t exactly sure about which path was the one for me. After graduating, I worked on Guam, studied in Hungary, and taught on the Thai-Burma border. The people I met and the struggles I began to understand, solidified my desire to advocate on behalf of the dispossessed and to mitigate conflicts.

I just finished my first year of the International Affairs MA program, studying Conflict Resolution and Security Policy. I know the combination is not a typical one, but I believe the conflict resolution ideology should be a big part of our security policy: not only to mitigate conflict but also to help prevent future conflict which would take some pressure off of the security program.

OID: Where are you this summer and what are you doing? How did you get this position/opportunity? How long have you been there? What are your initial impressions? Is this different than other Asian countries you’ve traveled to in the past?

Julia Collins: This summer I am interning in Burma/Myanmar at a economic and social reform policy think tank. I haven’t travelled extensively enough in Asia to comment on how Burma compares to other Asian countries, but I wrote a blog which expands on my internship experience in Yangon. I borrow from that post below:

Julia in Shwedagon with co-workers

Julia in Shwedagon with co-workers

Professor Christina Fink was instrumental in helping me find my internship. Her assistance along with the generosity of the Freeman Foundation Fellowship, enabled interning to become a reality, and for that I am deeply grateful. I arrived in early June and am one of 7 interns – four are also Master’s candidates studying at Columbia’s SIPA, one is a law student from Yale and one a Burmese-American from Michigan University. We are fortunate to work alongside incredibly hardworking and intelligent Burmese research assistants, former political exiles, professors as well as a few foreign economists and lawyers. We often have internal trainings ranging from tax reform in Myanmar to media laws and hate speech to Myanmar’s role in the WTO to inform our research and endow us with a more comprehensive understanding of Myanmar’s reform process.

OID: Will this experience change the coursework you take next year, or the types of opportunities you pursue in the future?

Julia Collins: Certainly. While I am a philosopher at heart and love Elliott school classes where you can debate ideas and discuss which approaches are best, this summer I realized the value of specific knowledge. I echo Brian Kraft and have to say I am planning on taking some more Economics courses or maybe a Monitoring and Evaluation skills course – courses with a more tangible deliverable skill to be able to say, “Yes, I know how to design an evaluation program and have an example from this class I took”. (Editor’s note: if you’re still looking for courses, check out the skills classes–usually in the 6502 range–and ask the second years which ones they really loved, as these are intended to give you those tangible skills to use on the job.)

OID:  What do you wish was different, either about the organization you work with, or the situations you are seeing on the ground?

Paddy field Mon State

Paddy field Mon State

Julia Collins: I joked with my co-workers that I wish they weren’t so likeable and intelligent because my efficiency levels in the office are suffering – I wold be much more productive if I had uninteresting colleagues. But truthfully, I learn so much in the hallways and in the canteen at lunch (lunch is provided for everyone), in discussions with my insightful and patient co-workers.

One of my Burmese colleagues – who has the misfortune of sitting next to constantly curious and pestering me – is extremely quotable in his assessments of Myanmar’s situation. We would often speak about what he termed, “democracy tourism” and the influx of development workers, foreign investors, businessmen and aid money. His point, a well-founded one, is that Myanmar is now very sexy in the international affairs field but there is a disconnect between the people flooding in to help, exploit, observe, or do whatever, and actually making an effort to understand the people, culture and context.

View of pervasive construction from the top of mountain in Mon State

View of pervasive construction from the top of mountain in Mon State

While I realize that every person is different and everyone can’t and shouldn’t be expected to learn the language and engage in the culture in which they live or travel, if visitors and development workers took an active interest in learning about the country and culture, local people and organizations might be inclined to take them more seriously. Plus, my Burmese colleagues always show me where the most delicious food is! :)