An Undergraduate's Route to the CDE

How does a Williams undergraduate connect with the Center for Development Economics (CDE)? And, with a full courseload and myriad extra-curriculars, is it even worth a try?

Diego Flores (Diego Ontaneda) ’11, Nargis Sakhibova ’12, and Katherine Ireland ‘09 firmly believe it is. Upon arriving at the CDE’s  handsome former frat house on the outskirts of campus (at the corner of Route 2 and South Street), each student felt welcomed into an eclectic community of international graduate students.

Diego Flores (Diego Ontaneda) ’11

Originally from Peru, Diego first found the CDE while browsing Williams online. He decided to major in economics and discovered that many of his required courses focused on developed nations, while his deeper interests lay in the developing world. With the help of Professor Anand Swamy, Diego enrolled in a CDE course called “Institutions and Governance” his senior year.

Diego also served as a TA for CDE fellows in econometrics, a required course for CDE fellows. While a seemingly inverted model, having undergraduates TA graduate students actually allows for a mutual exchange of knowledge: the undergraduates know the course material, while the graduates, most of whom have already had professional experience in their fields, bring a more practical, worldly perspective to their undergraduate counterparts.

Diego found TA-ing to be a rich experience. He observed that while many Williams undergraduates come to TA sessions simply to get the answers to problem sets, CDE fellows stayed well past the scheduled time to thoroughly understand the material. Diego’s TA sessions would often run more than two hours—an inconvenience for some undergraduate TAs, perhaps, but fun for Diego. “Sometimes I’d be right there grappling with problems alongside them,” Diego recalled joyfully.

Nargis Sakhibova ’12

Nargis also knew about the CDE before arriving at Williams—in fact, it was one of the reasons she chose to enroll. Hailing from Tajikistan, Nargis took her first course at the CDE, “The Effect of Climate Change of Developing Countries,” during Winter Study of her freshman year. Now a senior econ major, Nargis has a second CDE course, “Monetary Policy in Developing Countries,” under her belt.

What Nargis enjoyed most about being in class with CDE fellows was how they brought practical aspects of policy making from their countries into Williams classroom discussions. In her climate change course, each student had to estimate the effects of climate change on his or her country and come up with a long-range plan to address the issues. “It was interesting to see how one guy from Afghanistan would combat malaria, while a woman from Vietnam focused on the construction of water barriers to prevent the ocean from flooding coastal areas of Vietnam.”

Nargis notes that there are opportunities to get involved with the CDE even without being enrolled in graduate-level Economics courses. “The CDE hosts country presentations which are open to all Williams students, and CDE fellows often invite undergraduates to parties.”

Kate Ireland (’09)

Unlike Diego and Nargis, Kate is a US native who diversified her Williams experience through integrating socially, as well as academically, at the CDE.

Kate made a point of having breakfast with the fellows each morning before “Developing Country Macroeconomics” her senior fall and “Finance and Development” her senior spring. She loved the international atmosphere and was able to get to know many fellows personally. “I remember one Egyptian girl,” Kate recalled, “who said what she liked most about Williams was how isolated and safe it was!” (Kate and I both laughed at this memory, since many Williams students find the isolation, well, isolating.) Having traveled to Cairo the year before, however, Kate did appreciate the positive difference for a female student in the Berkshires.

Kate also hosted a dinner party at her Spring St. apartment for several of the fellows–and even invited a few to the Red Herring one evening so they could have a taste of undergraduate social life.

In the classroom, Kate enjoyed her classmates’ fresh perspectives, especially when one of them would challenge the professor with an outcry of: “That’s not how it’s done in my country!”

Now Kate is on the Visiting Committee for the CDE, touching base with Williams twice a year to help facilitate the CDE’s ever-evolving relationship with the college. Kate, along with the CDE’s Director Tom Powers, believes that graduate students and undergraduate students would both benefit from a deeper social connection. While Kate notes that cultural differences can be true obstacles–and Tom observes that the intensity of the fellows’ academic and professional focus does not often leave room for integrating with undergraduates–the positive remarks of those who have reached out are a testament to how, if one digs, Williams is a more global community than it seems.