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Reality is Often Unexpected

Perseverance Under Pressure

Rebecca Russavage will defend her Honors thesis and graduate this December with a double major in Political Science and Sociology, and double minors in International Development & Women’s Studies. An active member of the Honors Program, Russavage has been both an Honors TA, and member of the Honors Student Leadership Council. She has had a busy undergraduate career: living and working on five continents, co-founding an NGO called Girls Lobby that teaches high school girls about civic engagement, participating in four Model United Nations conferences, and presenting to the UN at the Civil Society Conference. We recently caught up with Russavage and asked her to tell us about her Honors experience at BYU:

How would you describe yourself and your “core values”?
“I can get excited about basically everything: international relations, books, ice cream, Star Wars, and especially food. However, I chose my academic paths because I love people and politics. I think it is so fascinating to not only try to understand why people are who they are and do what they do (hence my Sociology major) but also what they do with that identity and how they choose to manage the world (Political Science). My minors in Development and Women's studies have also left me with an abiding desire to make the world better than it is now, and I’m excited to apply the things I’ve learned to the real world. My time at BYU also made me think very carefully about when intervention is needed--people are incredible and are so capable of finding their own solutions, but conflict resolution (what I’ve focused on for most of my undergraduate research) often requires an external perspective. That focus showed me how to engage positively with the communities I care for and when not to, which is just as important.”

You have been diligent at completing an Honors Thesis, despite some setbacks. Could you tell us a little bit more about the journey?
“I had the chance to participate in the Program Evaluation and Assessment Team Internship through the Sociology department, and thanks to Dr. Scott Sanders of the Sociology Department and Professor Ben Cook of the Law School, I was able to combine this internship with a study abroad in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution. This experience changed both my career path and my perspective on life, and my research was at the heart of that change. I was intending to use this research as my Honors Thesis, but when we arrived, we discovered some permit restrictions. The Rwandan government keeps a pretty tight lid on what is studied in their country, especially if it has any connection to genocide, and some miscommunication with officials there meant we couldn’t collect the data we had planned. That was the most important part of the experience for me: reality is unexpected, but one door shutting can be a sign to change your life plans completely.

“After that, I tried to do another randomized control trial as part of the recruitment efforts for Girls Lobby—I figured if I was going to be recruiting women to participate in politics and didn’t randomize my methods to see what happened, what kind of social scientist am I? Many IRB hiccups later, we had had an amazing first year with Girls Lobby and no data. In the end, I decided to focus my thesis on what I could find in the library. I actually love my topic, as it combines so many of my interests: women and politics, nationalism, conflict, and Middle Eastern politics. I used Israel and Palestine as case studies to describe how conflict influences female nationalism.”

By the way, my favorite story to tell about that summer comes from one of my flights: I had an hour-and-a-half long conversation with an international arms dealer who supplies Museveni and Kagame with military weapons. He was a kind, older man who reminded me a lot of my dad. It was another reminder that people are a lot more than just their labels.”

What have you gained by pressing forward to accomplish your goals?
“I have had a lot of opportunities to learn about my own weaknesses and how to overcome them. One of those ways is through my job with Dr. Daniel Nielson, a professor in Political Science, in the Global Politics Lab. I currently manage his research team, which is comprised of a dozen students at BYU, several more at UT Austin, and another group in Bangladesh. We are exploring the prevention of international financial crime with a focus on banking compliance. This job has been quite a ride—it has challenged me in ways I hadn’t even imagined. It’s been helpful in pushing me beyond my existing skills in professionalism, working in a team, figuring out how to handle a massive, messy project, and what it feels like to lose and then find again a $40,000 spreadsheet in the course of an hour.”“I also have to mention Model UN as one of the most growth-promoting experiences I’ve ever had. After all, what’s life if you don’t have an existential crisis and meltdown in a hotel lobby in Philadelphia after a fight with Harvard over the Yemeni civil war, you know? All jokes aside, it genuinely shaped me more than I could express. I think my proudest moment of my BYU experience happened on the Shanghai subway when we got the news that we had been awarded Outstanding Delegation at my last (and favorite) conference (pro-tip: always work with a partner who is far more talented than you!) In total, I attended two conferences in New York, one in Philadelphia, and one in Xi’an, China. I met foreign diplomats, learned from an amazing community, did a ton of research, and walked away with skills in research, policy writing, public speaking, negotiation, and LIFE. So yes, the experience and travel was nice, but the growth was even better.”

What advice would you give to other undergraduates?
“Something I am really passionate about is the need for people, especially students, to find a community. I credit most of my own growth at BYU to fact that I spend a lot of time in rooms with people who are much smarter or more talented than I am. For me, those rooms were in the Maeser building with all of the Honors Students, the Global Politics Lab with the other research assistants in the Political Science department, Model UN, and the amazing women who came up with and acted on the idea to start Girls Lobby. In each case, the other students I’ve worked with have become some of my best friends and personal idols in every way. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is absolutely no downside to finding a bunch of people who want to argue about international politics as much as you do.”

What are some of your favorite experiences with the Honors community?
“I've told this story a dozen times, but while I was on the Honors Student Leadership Council we were trying to figure out new t-shirt designs. I was studying in the Reading Room and casually mentioned a couple of our ideas to the person sitting next to me. Forty-five minutes later I was embroiled in a conversation with five other people about how the different portrayals of the Force in the newest Star Wars trilogy vs the Prequels vs the original trilogy was an articulation of the changing roles of truth in society. I love Honors Students and the fact that they are totally unafraid to explore ideas and what they mean! Also, every Unexpected Connections class I've taken, especially the one on Nationalism taught by Dr. Chad Emmett and Dr. Nate Kramer, has shifted my paradigms in a major way. By the way, the t-shirts they came out with this year are pretty great -- definitely better than whatever idea we had after that conversation in the Reading Room.”

Following graduation, Russavage will intern with the American Foreign Service Association in Washington, D.C.