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Undergraduate Researchers

Ke Tang

Ke Tang, Political Science

“Jordan: NGOs in a Burgeoning Civil Society”

Civil society is the space occupied by citizens who involve themselves in organizations and institutions operating outside of a country’s government structure. These informal institutions can be powerful forces, as reflected in the ongoing Arab Spring movement. Civil unrest in the Arab world is challenging regimes and in several cases has resulted in the ousting of dictators. However, the forces at work within any civil society are complex and range across a wide spectrum of social, political and economic activities. This research project focuses on Jordan as a case study and is designed to examine some of the organizations and institutions at work within the Jordanian civil society. Specifically, it will focus on a sample of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) operating within Jordan at both the local and global levels. Their contributions will be assessed in terms of how their work on the ground measures up to their stated objectives. Through the creation of a documentary film consisting of interviews with key staff at the NGOs as well as footage of their day-to-day operations, this research will assess the nature and administrative capacities of the NGOs and address their contributions to the development of civil society in Jordan. By supplementing these interviews with analysis of project data and research statistics, this research will be able to generate a larger picture of the climate of Jordanian civil society and the ways in which it is impacting the institutional architecture of the country.

How did you find your mentor for year research?

Originally, I had no idea what I wanted to research. I knew what my regional interest was, and that was the Middle East. I was taking a class called US National Security Policy, and found out that my professor, Dr. Brigid Starkey, had regional expertise in the Middle East. I took another one of her classes, International Relations of the Middle East, and realized that given her interest and knowledge, she would be the perfect mentor for my project. I was also well into my application processes for study abroad opportunities in Jordan, and after consulting Dr. Starkey about the prospects of conducting research abroad, I realized the insights she was able to provide me were unique and very compelling.

How did you know you wanted to do your research in Jordan?

At the time of the Undergraduate Research Award application, I already knew I wanted to study abroad somewhere in the Middle East. In searching for programs that would send me there, I found many programs in Jordan, which has been a relatively stable country throughout the recent political turmoil in the Middle East. I had already applied for the Boren Scholarship Award by then, and on that application I had indicated my desire to study abroad in Jordan with CIEE, where there was a program “Diplomacy and Policy Studies.” That program was perfect both geographically and academically: the country is located at the heart of the Middle East, and the classes (in addition to Arabic courses) were geared towards students pursuing career objectives in national security and other similar interests in international development. It seemed like the perfect match.

How did you define a project to do in Jordan while you were still in the United States?

When coming up with a project, I had to consider some constraints. I would be in a foreign country the language of which I’m still mastering. Given the cultural differences, navigating through a research project on my own would have proven highly challenging. My project, therefore, had to be feasible in terms of access and relevance, but still capture my interest. I knew Jordan would be the place to go. My adviser helped me by prodding me in the direction of possibly examining Jordanian civil society. My subsequent literature review of existing knowledge on Jordan yielded some interesting information, but not as much as I thought there would be: political reforms had allowed an increased flow of capital to the development of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), but little literature actually existed on the subject. So from there, I devised a plan to examine NGOs in Jordan, and investigate their role in the development of Jordanian civil society.

Will your travel to Jordan and your work in Jordan be connected to the UMBC Study Abroad office? When do you leave? How long will you be there?

Yes, my travel to Jordan is coordinated with the UMBC Study Abroad Office as well as the programs to which I’m applying: CIEE (Council on International Education Exchange) for the Diplomacy and Policy Studies program, for Spring 2013, and SIT (School for International Training) for the summer Intensive Arabic Program for Summer 2013, immediately following CIEE.

What is the National Security Education Program Boren Scholarship?

The NSEP Boren Scholarship is a US federal government initiative legislated by David L. Boren, who argued to the US Senate the necessity of an increase in the number of experts in target languages and cultures that are valuable to the sustenance of US national security interests. These target languages and cultures reflected the nations that were typically underrepresented in US study abroad opportunities, and partnership with these countries would foster greater understanding and prospects with regards to US foreign relations. In 1991 the National Security Education Act established the National Security Education Program, with the goal of providing scholarships to undergraduate students and fellowships to graduate students. Following the completion of the program, recipients participate in the NSEP service requirement: one year of occupational service in a field related to either national security, or the language studied. Postings are usually in the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, or other teaching opportunities worldwide. I had the honor of receiving $20,000 to fund my study abroad in Jordan next year.

How did you know to apply for this? Was it hard? Who helped you?

The application process was largely straightforward. It was difficult in the sense that the essays had to be conceptually solid enough that whatever creative flair I injected to distinguish myself from the rest of the pile must not dilute the ideas I was trying to convey. To answer the prompts, I had to have a solid grasp of my stance of US national security – and I was fortunate to have taken Dr. Starkey’s class by that point, because discussions from that class helped me generate my repertoire. Dr. Souders of the Study Abroad office was immeasurably helpful and was an invaluable resource for editing. He knew the application process inside and out, having done so many of them. He was actually travelling in Asia at the time of the application, and despite spotty Internet access and the distractions Asia has to offer, he still maintained a very encouraging level of correspondence.

How did you hear about the Undergraduate Research Award program?

I heard about it from a friend of mine who received it. She conducted her research while studying abroad, which was very similar to what I wanted to do. From there I did some research into the URA and talked to my advisers about the prospects. I received a lot of positive feedback and encouragement, so I decided to move forward with the application process.

Was the URA application difficult to do?

The application, no. The creation of the research idea was the most difficult part. The background research was time consuming, because I didn’t want to miss anything and end up producing possibly redundant work. Once I had an idea that could be verbalized in an application proposal, the rest of the process fell into place.

Will you get course credit for this work?

At this point, I will not be receiving academic credit from the URA. It was started largely out of my own interest, and my desire to take advantage of my study abroad experience and explore the undercurrents of a country I otherwise may not have had a chance to visit. The courses I will be taking at CIEE will count towards my transcript.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research at UMBC or abroad?

Do your homework. Gather as much information about as many things as you can. Consider as many scenarios as you can think of. And – know what you want and how you want to get it. At the time I submitted my URA application, I did not know if I had received the Boren Scholarship. I went ahead with it anyway because I felt strongly enough about studying abroad that I was determined to go to Jordan one way or another, with or without scholarship money.

What are your career goals?

I am interested in diplomacy, foreign service, international development, and intelligence. Career paths within those fields have a huge spectrum of possibilities, all of which tend to be competitive. I am particularly looking forward to the NSEP service requirement because I will have a guaranteed position within an agency. From that I will be able to better determine my interests and long term goals.