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Fighting global poverty is fastest-growing minor

| 10 March 2009

Students majoring in everything from engineering to English are signing up at the University of California, Berkeley, for the campus's fastest-growing minor - "Global Poverty & Practice" - a veritable magnet for a "Yes We Can" generation eager to get out of the virtual world and into the real one.

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A blend of 1960s Peace Corps volunteerism and post Baby-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 experiences necessary to combat global poverty. To back theory with action, 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 & Practice have given us a chance to get out there and actually do something."

Last summer, the Santa Barbara-born mountain biker and amateur filmmaker, who is majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies, went to genocide-torn Rwanda and distributed custom built cargo bikes to coffee growers through a micro-loan system. He then made a movie about one of the growers, called "Pascal's Bike," and it debuted in February at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

More than 150 UC Berkeley undergraduates have declared Global Poverty & Practice their secondary choice for academic specialization, and 60 of them are due to graduate this May. That's quite a leap from the inaugural class of 2007-08, which had only seven students who graduated with that minor. At the time, education was the most popular UC Berkeley minor, declared by 112 students. It remains to be seen whether Global Poverty & Practice is surpassing the education minor in popularity. Data on minors will not be available until the fall, according to the campus's Office of Planning and Analysis.

UC Berkeley offers minors in more than 100 fields, and many of them require a minimum of five upper division courses. In most departments, students declare their minors at graduation.

Jonathan Lee, a public health major whose student organization, Global Medical Brigades, focuses on public health in Honduras, said students at UC Berkeley's peer institutions across the nation often ask him: 'So, what's this minor that you're in? Why doesn't my school have this?'"

While several U.S. universities have centers devoted to the study of poverty, they mostly focus on research and the training of graduate students. The focus on educating undergraduate students, and through a component of "praxis," is unique, said Ananya Roy, a UC Berkeley associate professor of city and regional planning and the Blum Center's curriculum director.

The founding and mission of the Blum Center. (5:55 min. video Produced by Roxanne Makasdjian, Media Relations, Spring, 2006)
Overjoyed at the minor's stratospheric popularity is San Francisco financier and philanthropist Richard Blum, a UC regent who launched the Blum Center for Developing Economies in March 2006 with a $15 million gift. At a recent dinner at the Bancroft Hotel in Berkeley that honored the field work of global poverty minors, Blum recalled how he introduced the idea to UC Berkeley 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 Roy, instructor of the minor's signature course, "Global Poverty: Challenges & 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, India, and winner of several prestigious teaching awards, Roy inspires students to get out of their comfort zones, 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," said 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."

Indeed, global poverty minors who have completed what's known within the Blum Center as "the Practice" learn quickly that as outsiders abroad, they can often feel overwhelmed. Emma Shaw-Crane, who is majoring in interdisciplinary studies, recalls sitting last spring on the roof of a friend's house in Beirut, Lebanon, watching two men fight below.

"I said, 'This is a nightmare,' and he said, 'At least it's a nightmare you get to wake up from,'" said Shaw-Crane, who credits the minor for helping to bridge the gap between academia and poor communities.

Among other things, Shaw-Crane, who was raised in both Northern California and Chiapas, Mexico, runs a media program at the Berkeley Technology Academy, a continuation high school whose students are mostly low-income African Americans and Latinos.

"When I came to Berkeley, I was very clear I was not going to be a weekend, once-a-year activist because I don't think that's the best use of my energy," she said.

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 & Practice students 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 spreading HIV and AIDS education in practical and culturally-appropriate ways, taking on hosting a phone-in radio show, coordinating research studies, and more.

And in the slums of Mumbai, India, numerous 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. They never ceased to be amazed at the resilience there of women and children who, as Cimino pointed out, can "make you smile and break your heart at the same time."

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, said Catapang, they ultimately get back so much more than they give.

"We're not that selfless. We do it because we get something in return, maybe not in a material way, but in fulfillment," he said. "And that's something you just can't buy."

Also: Video featuring Global Poverty students' field projects video