Conducting research abroad—with SIT and beyond

by Zoe Zakin

My name is Zoe Zakin and I participated in SIT’s development program in Argentina in fall 2014. I’d like to share my experience with SIT, doing original research, and how I was lucky enough to continue this research when I returned to school.

Zoe in La Boca Buenos Aires

Zoe exploring La Boca, a famous Buenos Aires neighborhood

Our program, while based in Buenos Aires, also took place in the rest of the South American Southern Cone. By exploring this region we learned about the economic and social histories of each place, how they are interconnected, and their statuses today. The last few weeks were spent doing an Independent Study Project (ISP) where we were expected to investigate—in depth—a topic that related to the themes we’d studied throughout the semester. I knew that I wanted to incorporate disability into my project since working with people with disabilities and studying disability had been huge passions of mine since high school. When the time came, I chose to do my ISP on access to employment for people with disabilities in Argentina, in line with our program theme of economic development.

Zoe at Iguazu Falls

Zoe at Iguazu Falls, on the border of the Argentine province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Paraná

An incredible part of the ISP experience is that SIT helps you find an advisor to work with. I was paired with a PhD student doing her dissertation on a topic remarkably similar to mine, who was able to connect me with interviewees as well as resources I would not have had access to otherwise.

Zoe Zakin quoteAnother great aspect of the ISP experience is the emphasis on doing original field research, usually in the form of interviews. Other members of the SIT team helped me find interviewees and, within just a few weeks, I was able to meet some incredible individuals. I met with members of a senator’s staff, the head of a major community organization in Buenos Aires, and the head of the disability office at the largest workers’ union in the country. With these interviews and my own secondary research, I produced a 50-page original work in Spanish making an argument about the barriers preventing access to employment for people with disabilities in Argentina. I was grateful to SIT for helping me accomplish something that seemed unlikely just a few short months before—conducting original research in another country and in a foreign language.

Returning to school (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) during the spring of my junior year, I began working on my undergraduate honors thesis. I wanted to find a way to expand upon the topic I’d already learned so much about through my SIT experience, so I chose to explore whether a social movement for disability rights existed in Argentina.

From my experience with SIT, I knew that the best way to accomplish this research would be to conduct in-person interviews. I applied for multiple grants through my university and was lucky enough to secure two. These allowed me to return to Buenos Aires the following fall—October 2015—for a little over a week. I reached out to my SIT advisor, who helped connect me with even more people to meet with (in addition to buying me lunch my first day back!). Between the interviews gained thanks to my advisor, the people I’d originally interviewed for my ISP, and a few other connections, I had a full week planned.

Zoe at graduation

Prior to my trip, I was extremely nervous—I virtually hadn’t spoken Spanish since being abroad a year before, I was traveling completely alone, and I had no idea if my interviews would even prove useful to my thesis. I shortly realized I had nothing to fear; not only were all the interviews extremely successful but I also found that my Spanish and familiarity with Buenos Aires returned almost immediately. I was surprised by how easy it was to fall back into the routine I’d established while abroad, and am very grateful to my SIT experience for giving me those skills to travel and work anywhere I want.

This past May (2016), I completed and successfully defended my thesis, and was recommended for highest honors. Now, as a recent graduate, I anxiously await my next opportunity to travel, explore, and maybe even conduct research again. Thanks to SIT, I know all of this is possible and within my reach!

Learn more about SIT’s development program in Argentina.

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