Summer Thesis Research: It's Not Just a CFIA Grant, It's an Adventure

For some students, thesis research does not mean months spent in the dusty stacks of Widener or in Pusey's antiquated archives. Rather, research constitutes spending the summer after one's junior year to live with African peasants, study contemporary British print unions, or reside in Indian refugee villages in Mexico. Behind all of these travels, lies what some have called the best-kept secret at Harvard, the Center for International Affairs (CFIA) grants for summer research.

One of a few programs at Harvard that offers money for students to do thesis research, the CFIA grant program funds grants from $500 to $1000. Often, juniors supplement these grants with money from the Center for European Studies, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies, or the Center for East Asian Research.

Director of Student Programs at the CFIA Donald Babai says, "These grants are designed to give students a kind of exposure to study abroad, and to do things that have not been done before that they would not have been able to do otherwise."

"Harvard takes very seriously its financial responsibility to its students... It is interested in its students and will do anything to facilitate their research for important projects, such as honors theses," says Samuel Huntington, Eaton Professor of the Science of government. "When students are looking for advisors in the fall of their senior year, I ask them if they ever thought about doing research abroad. They ask me how they could have done that," adds the CFIA director.

Last year 52 students applied for the 13 awards and Babai says that he thinks even more students will compete for the grants this year. Of the 22 students who won CFIA awards in 1984 and 1985, two graduated summa cum laude and 17 earned magna degrees.

The application, which this year is due on March 16, consists of recommendations, grades and a three-page proposal for a project, Babai says, adding that financial need is not considered. "The most important part of the application is the feasibility, justification, and cohesiveness of the proposal," he adds. The selection committee consists of two professors, one of whom is Babai, the executive officer of the CFIA, Chet Haskell, and a student member of the International Relations Council.

Each grant recipient becomes an undergraduate associate of the CFIA and leads a seminar on the topic of research which is open to the Harvard community. for three seniors, whose tales are related below, the CFIA grant provided them with money to do thesis research they could not have done otherwise.

Covering the Press in China

Amos P. Gelb '86-'87, who spent last summer researching the Chinese press, calls the CFIA program "one of the greatest things Harvard does." He compares the grant program to the core program, saying, "It's the best foreign cultures, social analysis, moral reasoning and historical studies education I think I'll ever get."

The East Asian Languages and Civilizations concentrator used his $2200 grant to research the extent to which the liberalization reforms associated with Premier Deng Xiao Ping have spilled over into the Chinese press. "The press will show the true colors of reform; it's the melting point of reformation," he says.

Gelb, who is fluent in Chinese, spent his summer interviewing foreign and domestic journalists, talking to government officials and academics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The Adams House resident knew that he would do his thesis on China after he spent a year in China working as a market analyst for IBM and Altman, Inc.

A thesis, Gelb says, "is something original that should wrap up your Harvard career." He adds that he does not think he could have written a thesis unless he had visited the country he wanted to study. "If I had to write a library thesis, I would not do it," Gelb says.

Although the British-born Gelb says he plans to return to China after graduation and be a journalist, he adds he will probably eventually return to his native London. "China can burn you out; it can China-you-out," he says.

Turkish Travels

Marta Hoilman '87 spent her summer under the roofs of hundreds of tiny shops at the Covered Bazaar in Instanbul, Turkey studying Turkish haggling practices.

The social anthropology major spent three months observing the behavior of merchants and consumers in Turkey. She even had to experience the merchant's perspective, as one of her subjects bargained her into selling for two hours in exchange for her sitting in his booth.

The cunning selling practices used by the Turks to allure tourists--from yelling in the streets to grabbing tourists--shocked Hoilman. The Turks made haggling an art, says Hoilman. After figuring out where a tourists was from, they would tailor their sales pitch in terms of the person's taste which they deciphered from his nationality, clothing, and demeanor. "They could pick out the Americans better than I could," Hoilman says.

The root of negotiation problems lies at the gap between cultures, Hoilman says. "The problem is not one of substance but of culture. For example, states negotiate and there are many problems of disagreement, such as the time of the negotiation, the location, and even sometimes, the size of the table.

"How can there be negotiation where there are cultural differences that are misunderstood?" Hoilman asks, adding, "It's interesting to contrast the Turkish idea of bargaining with that of the fixed price notion here in America."

The Quincy House resident discovered this during her clerkship in the merchant's booth. "It was so embarassing," she recalls. "Because in our culture, we do not go out on the street and yell at the customer and drag him into the store and talk to him until he buys something, I was not good at this aggressive selling technique."

Hoilman has been interested in Turkey since high school. During her junior year, she tried to do an independent study course on Turkish haggling practices but found no published material. Because of this, Hoilman could not write her thesis unless she was given the CFIA grant.

After she graduates, Hoilman says she hopes to study haggling practices in other countries. But, she admits, she will never be a good haggler herself, because "you can barely stand to see yourself haggling after you've just spent a whole summer watching hagglers."

A Summer of Living Dangerously

Without his CFIA grant, Peter K. Hannam '87 would not have been able to research his thesis on small-scale development in Indonesian villages. "If I hadn't gotten the grant, there would have been no way for me to do this thesis. I had no money, and there are no library books on these Indonesian development attempts," Hannam says.

Harvard's name and the credibility that the grant gave him allowed him to get many needed interviews with important officials, the Social Studies concentrator says.

The Australian-born Hannam took a risk in researching his thesis as the authoritarian Indonesian government had officially outlawed foreign studies of villages during the summer. However, Hannam decided to go ahead with his project.

"I'm sure people wondered what I was up to, because I was going to places tourists don't visit," Hannam says. "I'd have to make up stories all the time. I made up so many that I couldn't remember to whom I had told which story." Hannam ended up photocopying his notes and sending them home to Melbourne in case he was caught.

Since his studies at the United World College in Singapore, Hannam has known that he wants to study development. After reading a New York Times article on cooperatives in Indonesia, he decided to see if this alternative to large-scale development solved some of the problems of the third world country.

Arriving in Indonesia with a skeptical mind, Hannam did not find anything positive about the place. Hannam says, "There were only 25 co-ops not 150 as the leader had told me, and the effectiveness of the co-ops was dramatically exaggerated.

He was not sure whether the indigenous people were telling him the truth about the success of these co-ops since they claimed, "99 percent efficiency which is impossible." In frustration, he turned to foreigners for answers. "It was from the foreigners that I got a critical perspective; they are more realistic than the indigenous people," he says.

Hannam questions the commitment of organizations, such as the World Bank and the Harvard Institute of International Development which are supposedly attempting to solve development dilemmas. "I wonder if these development officials are really devoted," he says. "They come to developing countries and stay at the best hotel, are waited on, and chauffeured around. They live like little princes." He adds, "How can these people understand the poor when they have a passport for exit?"

The Lowell House resident says he plans to spend time after graduation studying development in third world countries. "Development is when other people don't need me and can rely on themselves," he says.