Fastest Growing Minor at Cal: Saving the World

Engineering and History are still popular majors at UC Berkeley but they aren't growing nearly as fast as a minor that has only been in existence for two years.

School communications officials announced this week that "Global Poverty and Practice" has become the fastest growing minor on campus.

"(This has become) a veritable magnet for a 'Yes We Can' generation eager to get out of the virtual world and into the real one," said Yasmin Anwar, of the school's media relations department.

The courses in the minor help provide students with the knowledge and experiences necessary to combat global poverty.

Some students design affordable water filters to be used in the slums of Mumbai, India. Others advocate for squatters threatened with eviction in Nairobi, Kenya. Some students promote gender-equity laws in Sierra Leone or establish community-owned 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 a drastic increase from the inaugural class of 2007-08, which had only seven students who graduated with the 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. Official 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.

"Why Doesn't My School Have This?"

Jonathan Lee, a public health major whose student group, 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.

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. That's where the offices for the minor are located.

Blum said 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 said. "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 students 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."

Students Often Feel Like Outsiders

Global poverty minors who have completed what is known within the Blum Center as "the Practice" say they 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.

Cal Partners with More Companies

In another case of the UC Berkeley partnering with corporations in order to bring financial and technical support for projects, Vodaphone and an India-based conglomerate called the Tata group are helping students.

The center has also forged ties around the world with 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."

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