Honors program inspires research, connects students to policy world

For Mariah Halperin, it was an extraordinary moment.

The Stanford senior – who is writing a thesis on the development of democracy in Turkey – sat across a table from Kemal Dervis, a former Turkish minister of economic affairs and treasury. Halperin was among several students in the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law honors program spending the better part of an hour listening to Dervis speak on the global economy and other topics.

“It was an amazing opportunity,” said Halperin, who was able to ask Dervis about his reform efforts as minister.

The meeting was one of more than a dozen similar sessions the students participated in over five days during a visit to Washington, D.C. The mid-September trip to the nation’s capital was a highlight of CDDRL’s honors college program, which was recently endowed with a gift from philanthropists Sakurako and William Fisher. 

Led by CDDRL Director Larry Diamond and Francis Fukuyama, this year’s honors program director and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the students saw the inside workings of government and development organizations and had lively question-and-answer sessions with a host of prominent figures.

They went to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Millennium Challenge Corp.  They met with Stephen Hadley, who served as President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, and Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. And they spoke with Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter.

“Expectations were high; the trip lived up to them,” said Imani Franklin. The international relations major joins Halperin and seven others in this year’s honors class.

“Just mind-blowing to me, that you’re meeting just all these incredibly famous people in such a small setting,” Kabir Sawhney, a management science and engineering major, said after meeting with Dervis at The Brookings Institution, where he is a vice president and director of global economy and development.

The program, whose formal name will be the Sakurako and William Fisher Family Undergraduate Honors Program at CDDRL, was created by a group headed by FSI senior fellows Kathryn Stoner and Michael A. McFaul, who is now Washington’s ambassador to Moscow.

The program allows seniors to graduate with honors in democracy, development and rule of law. Its roots go back seven years, when Stoner-Weiss was teaching a single class to 20 students. 

"Our goal had always been to truly create...an interdisciplinary program,'' Stoner-Weiss said. "It's become, I think, a lot more than we thought it might be.”

Initially the program was for students studying international relations or political science. That changed last year, when the university made CDDRL honors an interdisciplinary program. Diamond said at that point the program crossed a critical threshold, that now it can engage a wider range of students and has become more competitive and more selective.

“It wasn’t as rich and diverse a mix,” said Diamond, who also believes opening the program to students across campus has benefited those who are accepted.

“I think, in a way, it’s more fun for them because they have a more diverse group,” he said.

This year’s group does include two international relations and one political science major. But Halperin is majoring in history and others are studying human biology, public policy, earth systems and economics.

“I wanted to do it because I wanted a challenge, and I wanted to work intensely in a discipline in which I had no experiences,” said Holly Fetter, who is pursuing a bachelor’s in comparative studies in race and ethnicity and a master’s in sociology. “I knew I wanted an international perspective that I had not sought out yet as an undergraduate.”

Sawhney said the honors program allows him to pursue a thesis outside his engineering major and gain a measure of depth in something other than his major before he graduates.

“This is something I can do that’s going to be a very unique experience,” said Sawhney, whose thesis will be a study of the effect of regime type on a country’s propensity to default on its sovereign debt obligations.

Thomas Alan Hendee – who was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and whose thesis will be a study of the social determinants of health in Brazilian slums and how they affect child health – said he wanted to be a part of the honors program since freshman year.

“This is the second year when they’ve allowed people from all over the university to come in, and I’m really thankful for that opportunity,” he said.

Explaining the decision to endow the program, Sakurako Fisher said she and her husband are making a yearly investment in a group of students “who are going to go out and make the world a better place,’’ and that some CDDRL honors students may in their careers have an impact that brings more than a ripple of benefit to people in distant lands.

“It could be a tidal wave. It could be a tidal wave on another shore,’’ she said. “We may not know that for 30 years.’’

Fisher said whether or not an honors student ultimately works in one of the fields the program focuses on, the experience of going through the program will affect how each lives his or her life.

“Maybe they don’t stay in this area, but it always influences their decisions for the rest of their lives,’’ she said.

Julie Veroff, who was a member of the first CDDRL honors program class, said the experience has served her well since she graduated from Stanford in 2007.

Veroff went on to receive a master's in international development from Oxford and spent three years as executive director of Face AIDS, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that was created by Stanford students to engage high school and college students in the fight to eradicate AIDS. Veroff is now in her first year at Yale Law School. 

"First and foremost, it gave me a lot of confidence as an intellectual person,'' said Veroff, who explained that the program led her to thoroughly explore and think critically about issues and ideas, to not just accept something at face value.

She also said the program taught her how to both accept and ask for feedback and how to be more aggressive in speaking to professors and mentors about her goals. It also left her with lasting connections with peers and professors she can turn to for help - or for a simple friendly conversation. 

"I can't remember anything from statistics, but certainly that peer community is long lasting. And for that I'm grateful,'' she said. 

Honors program students must have at least a 3.5 grade point average, and they apply to the program in the winter quarter of their junior year. Those accepted begin their studies with a three-unit research seminar in the spring quarter of their junior year. 

The students are also encouraged to do field work or other research over the summer before senior year, and several members of this year’s group ranged far and wide over the globe. Keith Calix, whose thesis will examine the relationship of post-apartheid education reform and the rise of organized crime in Cape Town, spent the spring and much of the summer in South Africa.

Fetter, whose focus is the influence of U.S. funding on the development of China’s civil society, did research in Beijing. Halperin spent the summer in Turkey. And Franklin, who will assess whether exposure to Western beauty standards impacts the self-image of women in the developing world, studied Arabic in Jordan. 

Lina Hidalgo is studying the social and political impacts of media in Egypt and China and spent time in both countries. Anna Schickele spent two weeks in Peru to explore the determinants of farmer participation in agricultural development projects in the country. Vincent Chen, who was unable to make the trip to Washington, will study how democratic and autocratic systems affect the formation and efficacy of their environmental policies.

Diamond said the number of students admitted to the program is limited not only by the academic requirements, but also to allow the scholars to be able to develop strong relationships with each other and their instructors.

“I think that having somewhere between about eight to 12 students is a good size. That’s kind of been the size the last few years,” he said.

In D.C., students said bonds were being formed.

“We’re getting more of an idea of what we’re all working on,” said Halperin.  And Hendee said there must be camaraderie in order to face the work ahead.

“It’s a struggle,” he said, “a year-long struggle we’re going to be in together.”

Jenna Nicholas, who was in last year’s honors program, said it was valuable to have her colleagues’ perspectives and opinions as she worked on her thesis that examined the growth of civil society in China. She said her group offered hard analysis of one another’s work, and that the program resulted in her improving her own critical-thinking skills. Nicholas, who is completing her master’s in organizational behavior at Stanford, also advised this year’s group to “keep the commitment level up.”

Then, with a laugh, she said: “And remember what your hypothesis was.”

Diamond said that in terms of teaching, the honors program has become CDDRL’s crown jewel. He said students’ research, which results in theses of 75 to 125 pages, is having an impact.

Otis Reid, who graduated from the program last year, was recognized by the university with the David M. Kennedy Honors Thesis Prize and the Firestone Medal for Excellence - the top prizes for undergraduate social science research - for his thesis on the impact of concentrated ownership on the value of publicly traded firms on the Ghana Stock Exchange.

“They’re generating new knowledge,” Diamond said. “It’s not just an exercise.”

Before heading back to Stanford in late September, the students received an invitation to return to the nation’s capital from David Yang, director of the U.S. AID Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights & Governance in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance.

“Come back,” Yang said. “We’ll share your papers and debate your findings.”

Michael McAuliffe is a freelance writer based in Greenbelt, Md.