|The work that Berkeley students do abroad, fulfilling the global poverty and practice minor's requirements, brings them deep satisfaction.|
What's Berkeley's hottest minor?
It could be fighting global poverty. Working on projects close to their hearts, a new generation of student-activists makes its mark on the world
| 12 March 2009
BERKELEY — Students majoring in everything from engineering to English are signing up for the campus's fastest-growing minor, global poverty and practice — a veritable magnet for a "Yes We Can" generation eager to get out of the virtual world and into the real one.
A blend of 1960s Peace Corps volunteerism and post-Boomer, tech-savvy pragmatism, the two-year-old minor is offered by the Blum Center for Developing Economies to provide students with the knowledge and experience necessary to combat global poverty. Students are designing affordable water filters for slum dwellers in Mumbai, India; advocating for squatters threatened with eviction in Nairobi, Kenya; promoting gender-equity laws in Sierra Leone; and establishing community-owned diabetes clinics in Jordan.
"My generation has grown up bombarded by CNN images of tanks, terrorists, and children with swollen bellies covered in flies," said sophomore Jacob Seigel-Boettner, 21, a global-poverty minor currently studying in Croatia. "Most of the time, it just makes us feel frustrated and helpless. But programs like global poverty and practice have given us a chance to get out there and actually do something."
More than 150 Berkeley undergraduates have declared global poverty and practice their minor, and 60 of them are due to graduate this May. That's quite a leap from the inaugural class of 2007-08, from which only seven students graduated with that minor. At the time, education was the most popular undergrad minor, declared by 112 students. It remains to be seen whether global poverty and practice will surpass that mark; the relevant data will not be available until the fall, according to the campus's Office of Planning and Analysis.
Overjoyed by the minor's stratospheric popularity is San Francisco financier and philanthropist Richard Blum, who launched the Blum Center for Developing Economies in March 2006 with a $15 million gift. At a recent dinner at the Bancroft Hotel that honored the fieldwork of global-poverty minors, Blum, a UC regent, recalled how he introduced the idea to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau as they walked across campus one day in 2005.
"I said to him, 'What would you think of a global poverty center?' … and he turned to me and said, 'I love the idea,'" Blum told the audience. "Within a few months, we had it going … and what we've done in less than three years is simply amazing."
Key to the minor's popularity is Ananya Roy, an assistant professor of city and regional planning who teaches the minor's signature course, Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes in the New Millennium, which squeezes 480 students into an auditorium in Wheeler Hall and has another 200 on the waiting list. A charismatic native of Calcutta and winner of several prestigious teaching awards, Roy inspires students to get out of their comfort zone, but has no illusions that her mentees are saving the world's poor.
"We don't send out students to miraculously solve and fix problems," says Roy. "We hope they will make a tangible and responsible contribution, but most of all we hope they will be transformed and humbled by their experience, that they will learn from the work of organizations and communities, that they will recognize that they are getting much more than they can ever give."
To supplement technical and financial support for student-led projects, the Blum Center has partnered with such corporations as Vodafone and the Tata Group, an India-based business conglomerate. The center has also forged ties around the world with numerous organizations that welcome global-poverty minors on the lookout for fieldwork close to their hearts.
One such student is Zilose Lyons, a development-studies major and global-poverty minor who returned to her native Zambia last summer to work with the Centre for Infectious Disease Research. Having lost a relative to AIDS, she joined a team responsible for disseminating HIV and AIDS education in practical and culturally appropriate ways, taking on hosting a phone-in radio show, coordinating research studies, and more.
Elsewhere, in the slums of Mumbai, global-poverty minors have literally trudged through the sewers to devise affordable water-filtration systems. In the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, molecular environmental biology majors Jennifer Quan and Theora Cimino battled lice and scabies infestations among orphans. And then there's Gabriel Catapang, a senior who traveled to his native Philippines in January to shadow residents of the poverty-stricken island of Mindanao for his thesis in international political economy. Among other things, he built homes and did farm work.
While members of the millennial generation are drawn to social and political causes, Catapang says, echoing Ananya Roy's observation, they ultimately get back so much more than they give.
"We're not that selfless," he says. "We do it because we get something in return — maybe not in a material way, but in fulfillment. And that's something you just can't buy."
An audio slideshow featuring students minoring in global poverty and practice can be viewed at www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2009/03/gpp. For more information about the global poverty curriculum, visit blumcenter.berkeley.edu/undergraduate-minor-program.