Ph.D candidate, Political Studies
Sara Pavan, Political Studies
Sara's Research World Opens up
By Reeju Ray
October 23rd 2013
“It is hard to overstate how honored I feel to have received the Vanier and Trudeau Scholarships. These scholarships open up opportunities for me that would be unimaginable otherwise.”- Sara Pavan
Sara Pavan, doctoral candidate, Political Studies department Queen’s University, is the winner of the prestigious Trudeau and the Vanier Awards, 2013. Sara’s doctoral project examines the conditions that encourage and facilitate the political integration of immigrants. Canada’s multiculturalism policies make it a unique case study for research on immigrant integration, and the decision to study in Canada was not a difficult one since Sara had in mind what she wanted to work on. Sara points out that, “the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s hosts some of the most important contributors to the international debate on immigrant integration, and many doctoral students work on related research topics. As a result, Queen’s really felt like the best place to go to. To this date, considering the quality of education I am getting, I think it was the best choice I could have ever made.”
Sara did her Master’s at the University of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Her Master’s thesis, which examined the development of Moroccan associations in the districts of the municipality of Amsterdam, was pivotal in shaping her research inquiries in the doctoral project. Sara is currently starting her field research in Toronto, and will follow that with research in the United States. Sara has a clear path outlined for herself, and this reflects her conviction towards her project and a clarity many graduate students aspire for. She wants to continue working on political participation, networks and ethnic diversity even after the completion of her doctoral project. Sara wants to pursue an academic career and among the possibilities ahead of her at the moment, she would like a postdoctoral position at the Australian National University or at the University of Leuven, in Belgium. However, she says, “I think I am learning to embrace serendipity, so I am really open to any opportunities to conduct serious research and deepen our understanding of the topic I tackle in my dissertation.”
Sara’s project stands out as one that is not limited to theoretical and academic importance. She claims that the political participation of immigrants represents a crucial element of a successful democracy in a demographically multicultural country. Political participation, Sara points out in her work, is not simply choosing whom to vote for or “expressing an electoral preference”. “It encompasses other types of activities, such as signing a petition or joining a demonstration, or displaying a sign on one’s lawn or volunteering for a candidate before an election.” Through her fieldwork in Toronto Canada, and San Jose, California, with a focus on immigrants from India and El Salvador the dissertation will also analyse “whether in countries that adopt integration policies, such as Canada, the social networks of immigrants display more inter-ethnic ties than in countries that adopt a laissez-faire approach to immigrant incorporation, such as the United States.”
Sara’s international education has shaped her development as a human being. Being confronted with ethnic diversity- a result of international travel and being an international student at Queen’s- has illuminated for Sara the diversity of values and practices. This experience has helped in breaking down and being critical of categories like normative, or universal in both personal and academic terms. “The norms, values and practices of “others” are no more “deviation from normalcy” than my own norms, values and practices are a deviation from other people’s normalcy. I strongly believe that the fact that Western democracies are becoming increasingly ethnically diverse is a major asset. It of course also raises important challenges, which warrant public discussion and debate. That’s why political participation is necessary for diverse democracies.” International students, too, are a category of immigrants, and Sara’s personal experience gives her deeper insight into the significance of such future residents of the country. However, she recognises that her choice to be in Canada for the purpose of intellectual growth invests her with a kind of privilege that does not necessarily extend to those who arrive in Canada for other reasons. Sara’s insight arms her with an intellectual honesty directed towards understanding the contextual and cultural aspects of people’s lives in adopted countries.
Sara has worked as a Student Advisor for the Society of Graduate and Professional Students at Queen’s for twelve months. Her decision to apply for this position reflects some of the same interests that drive her research. Student advisors at SGPS provide valuable support to students, to enable them to make the most of their experience at Queen’s, and integrate into the student community. Many international graduate students seek the guidance of SGPS student advisors for help in navigating the policies and procedures of the University, or to advocate on their behalf. The student advisors also engage with the School of Graduate Studies to create conditions to enhance the experience of Graduate Students at Queen’s. Sara points out, “In a way, what the Advisors do is to assist their clients, many of whom are International Students, become substantive citizens of the Queen’s community, regardless of their background, of their research interests, and the variety of their individual characteristics. I have approached my work as a student advisor with the same goals in mind that motivate my research.” Sara’s role as a student advisor has also provided her with invaluable training in conflict resolution and coaching, as well as helped in developing communication skills.
Being asked about ways to bridge the gap between research and policy Sara points out that, it is a “thorny question that has tormented generations of social scientists!” Although few social scientists dismiss it, according to Sara it is important to understand, HOW research can provide insight to policymakers. However, a clear boundary between academic research and policy making is important. Otherwise, the academic freedom of researchers can be jeopardised, “including the freedom to criticize existing policy based on evidence.” At the same time, Sara believes that researchers should reflect on the policy implications of their findings and not hesitate to tackle urgent social problems. She believes this could be achieved under two seemingly idealistic situations: “if researchers translate their findings for different audiences, (both policy makers and the general public), while maintaining intellectual honesty and, that the realm of policy, engages in a critical debate with researchers, be it by posing questions or by taking into account the results of scholarly work.”