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An undergraduate perspective on international research

November 07, 2013
Elise Racine
You have an idea for a research project but where do you begin? This is a question that many researchers have and while there may be many resources for faculty on campus, where does the undergraduate student turn? Fortunately, there is an office on campus that offers assistance to undergraduate students that not only guides them through the process of getting their research ideas off the ground, but also provides funding to bring their ideas to life.
Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) recently co-hosted with the Haas Center for Public Service, the 12th annual Symposium of Undergraduate Research and Public Service (SURPS). UAR grant recipients for research and participants in public service projects showcased a diverse set of domestic and international experiences. Students were on hand to share their experiences in the field and talk about their projects.
I met with Elise Racine, a sociology major that spent her summer in northern India conducting her honors thesis research on exiled Tibetans and the motives behind self-immolations. She shares her international research experiences with OIA and offers words of advice to fellow undergraduate students interested in conducting research.

Q.  What did you do this summer?

This summer I was fortunate enough to return back to Dharamsala, India to conduct research for my honors thesis.  For those who do not know, Dharamsala is the location of the Dalai Lama’s residence, as well as the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration, which acts as the exiled Tibetan government.  Situated in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh and on the southern edge of the Himalayas, Dharamsala is a beautiful mountain town surrounded by pine trees and Himalayan Oaks.  It is also home to a thriving Tibetan community with a rich culture and history. 

Q.  How did you get interested in the topic?

I first ended up in Dharamsala two summers ago in 2012 while interning at Delek Hospital under the direction of the Dalai Lama’s personal physician.  I knew little about the Tibetan political situation, let alone the self-immolations but I quickly became familiar with the topic.  My second day at the hospital, many of the nurses mentioned they were going to candlelight vigil in the main square for one of the self-immolation victims.  They asked if I wanted to come with them.  I recalled reading something about theself-immolations in my background research on Dharamsala, but had no real idea about what they were talking about.  I said yes anyway, eager to learn more about the people I would be living with for the summer and their struggle.  What I found out astounded me. 
At every vigil, an announcer calls out the name of the self-immolator and any other information they may know about him.  Due to Chinese restrictions on the flow of information in and out of Tibet this can sometimes be very little.  The announcer goes on to recount the other self-immolations that had occurred.  I remember the number clearly – 44.  That day we were honoring number 44.  My mind was blown.  44 people had sacrificed their lives for the cause by literally lighting themselves on fire.  What I had not realized was that numbers 42 and 43 had occurred just a week before.  By the time I left Dharamsala, nearly 50 individuals would have given up their lives, but to me they were no longer just numbers. 

Q. How did you develop your international internship?

Coming back to the United States, I kept waiting to hear about the self-immolations in the news.  I watched as the number climbed.  In November 2012, there were 28 self-immolations alone, and yet there was still nothing on the news.  I kept in touch with my friends back in Dharamsala and I became more and more interested in the topic.  I started wondering why there was not more media coverage.  When a few articles finally started to pop up in the winter of 2013 I was hopeful.  Finally, this issue might come to light.  But I was soon disappointed by the focus of the discussions and I realized that no one from the Western world had asked the Tibetans what they thought.  This is when I first got the idea for my research.
As a sociology major, I have done a lot of work on social movements.  I find protest tactics fascinating, especially why some work and others do not.  I had so many questions about the Tibetan self-immolations.  Would the Tibetan exile community view the tactic as successful?  Why did they think there had not been more media coverage?  What did they see for the future of the movement?  Furthermore, never before had there been a case study of self-immolations as large as the Tibetan one.   The demographic and geographic shifts that emerged as the numbers grew were intriguing in their own rights. 
Thus, I developed a research proposal that would allow me to return to the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala.  Originally, my thesis proposal focused on the international community’s response to the self-immolations but I realized the deeper I delved into the issue, the more the Tibetan voice was being ignored.  How could we truly analyze a movement if we never even asked its key players what they thought?  I decided to then focus my research on the Tibetan community’s response with the hope that these interviews would shed some much-needed light on the issue and ultimately answer the question – is this tactic working?
Despite my previous trip to Dharamsala, the University was originally hesitant to grant funding to a Western woman traveling abroad to Northern India.  I empathized with their concerns.  There were concerns many had expressed to me over the last year and there were the concerns I even had.  My first visit was not easy.   I was sexually harassed often.  Going through the grant process made me really question whether or not I wanted to go through such experiences again but I was propelled forward by the connection I felt to the Tibetan community and the desire to conduct this research. 

...Be passionate about your topic...


Q. What kind of guidance did you receive from faculty advisors and/or mentors?

At Stanford I was fortunate to have an incredible group of mentors who supported my research.  My advisor Professor SusanOlzak, who I have known and worked with since my freshman year, helped me establish the initial approach to my project.  Her work on ethnic conflict provided an interesting lens through which to look at the issues and under her guidance my proposal began to take shape.  But Professor Olzak would be on sabbatical the next year; I needed another professor to act as my thesis advisor. 
At the time I was taking a course by Professor Michael Rosenfeld (also of the Sociology Department) entitled “The Urban Underclass.”  I liked his approach to the material and heard he had acted as a thesis advisor for several other students within the department.  Furthermore, many of these students had been acknowledged for the theses they had produced.  I wanted someone who would push me to do my best work so I approached Professor Rosenfeld and was delighted when he agreed to work with me.  
With regards to my contacts in Dharmamsala, Tenzin Tethong, a former professor Distinguished Fellow at the Tibetan Studies Initiative at Stanford, and former Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration who is the current director with Radio Free Asia, was immensely helpful.  I reached out to him, not really expecting him to pay much attention to my research.  After all I was just a student.  But I was wrong.  He proved to be one of my most useful resources going into my research.  Not only did he sit down with me to discuss the possible questions and topics I might ask, but he also put me into contact with some critical people in Dharamsala who made my stay there a success. 
The first was his sister-in-law, Chukie la (la is Tibetan way of basically saying Mr. or Mrs. and shows great deference and respect), who owned a guesthouse in Dharamsala.  I ended up staying at this guesthouse and using it as a base for several of my meetings.  Run by Tibetans and situated in the heart of the Dharamsala, the guesthouse proved the optimal space to work on my project.  The second was a couple – Lhakpa la and Lobsang la – who proved invaluable not only in their contacts in the community, but also with what they had to say on the matter.  Sitting down with them prior to beginning my interviews I felt like I had much clearer idea of what to ask.  They also put me in contact with the young woman who would act as my translator for the next month – Dukthen Kyi.  With that team and my prior contacts supporting me I embarked on my research.


Q.  What did you learn from the experience?

I truly believe that these resources were a key reason I was so successful in collecting interviews.  Three days after my arrival in Dharamsala we began interviewing a variety of members in the Tibetan community, averaging somewhere between 5-10 interviews a day.  I spoke to shopkeepers, doctors, governmental officials, monks, nuns, students, teachers, NGO workers, authors, etc., but I could not have done it without Dukthen.  Although about half the interviews were conducted in English, she proved vital in breaking down the language barrier, especially in the interviews conducted in Tibetan.  I felt like each individual’s character came through. 
We worked tirelessly and in one month we managed to conduct 116 interviews, surpassing all of our expectations.  Going into the project I was expecting around 60 interviews, hoping maybe for 80.  In no way did I expect to exceed 100 interviews.  The most incredible outcome from each interview was that I learned something new.  Each person had his or her own unique things to say.  I quickly began to realize that , even with my somewhat limited knowledge and familiarity with the Tibetan community, I still had many misconceptions about the issues at hand. 
One of the biggest surprises surrounded my question “What do you understand to be the Buddhist view on self-immolations.”  Not because the answers were so diverse but instead, I was surprised by how uniform they were.  Many individuals stated that they believed the self-immolators were performing the ultimate sacrifice with the goal of becoming Bodhisattva-like (an enlightened being). For many in the exile community, the self-immolations were in line with Buddhist teachings.  I asked if they thought the acts were sinful, for several of the articles I read before embarking for Dharamsala debated whether the self-immolations as technical suicides went against Buddhist principles.  Many individuals were shocked at the proposition.  For them, the key component was the motivation and they felt that while we could not truly know the self-immolators’ motivations, the testimonies and last words they left behind gave a good glimpse into the purity of the incentives. 
Going into my research, I thought this question would be a key component of my analysis.  Many of the Western articles I had read focused on this Buddhist aspect of the self-immolations.  I later learned that the Chinese media was the first to propose this angle in attempts to direct international attention away from the key issues at hand, specifically why these acts were happening.  For in almost every interview my subject stated that they felt the question was almost unnecessary as the self-immolations were a political, not religious act.  At first that concept was hard for me comprehend.  How could the self-immolations not be religious?  That was when it truly hit me how much I had been influenced by other work, and that Western literature was still focused on the wrong subject.  While there is a certain religious component to the self-immolations, as my Tibetan interviewees stated, they ultimately are political acts of protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.  I came to understand how religion might seem irrelevant. Furthermore, I now feel, whatever the outcome of my research, that I have done something important. I have asked Tibetans what they themselves thought about the issue.  With an estimated 122 self-immolations since 2009, it is an issue that seems unlikely to go away.  

Q.  What advice you would give to a fellow undergraduate student thinking of conducting international research?

I am looking forward to further breaking down everything I learned and feel like I still have so much to look into.  Before beginning my research I received some important advice that I cannot emphasize enough – be passionate about your topic.  I still have several months left to work on my thesis and I have already dedicated a large portion of my time and energy to it. I relish the opportunity to delve deeper into this topic and truly feel a sense of accomplishment in doing so.  Which takes me to a second piece of advice, one that I learned going through this process.  Reach out to as many contacts as possible, even if it seems to be a long shot.  You never know who will be interested in helping you.  This kind of research is truly not something you can do alone.  I would not be as far as I am without the support of some very amazing people.