Ling Chou, Hannah Curren, and Stephane Leblois arrived at UMass Boston with different backgrounds, but they each graduated Thursday leaving with the tools they need to make the world a more inclusive place.
The trio is the first class to earn a master’s degree in global inclusion and social development from the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development (SGISD). They were among 1,340 advanced degree students who celebrated commencement at the Clark Athletic Center on Thursday, May 26.
SGISD opened in fall 2013 to train leaders who focus on social justice and economic development from an international perspective. Dean Bill Kiernan says the master’s program is the first of its kind in the nation.
“We want to prepare people who understand the issues of populations that have been excluded, and work toward making sure that in the future, there will be delivery systems that don’t exclude people for whatever reason—it can be because of religion, sexual orientation, gender, culture,” Kiernan said. “It gets to how do we create a way to give people more opportunity? By having more opportunities, people can possibly have more assets, or more wealth, and by virtue of that, they can have a better quality of life.”
Chou first arrived in Boston to study art therapy at another university, but found the coursework unfulfilling. When she began taking conflict resolution graduate courses at UMass Boston, she discovered the SGISD master’s program, and felt it best suited her passions and goals after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in studio art.
Chou has worked for several nonprofits, including Hyde Square Task Force, and in commercial booking during her time in the program. With her SGISD master’s degree, she plans to focus on cultural dissonance and to help individuals in the creative industry share stories and experiential knowledge that help others achieve enrichment.
“Successful people have had to go through survival mode, too, and they don’t know the value of their experience,” Chou said. “I want to set up a platform for brokerage space to facilitate whatever they’re comfortable with, such as workshops with youth that connect them with people who are interested in their stories.”
Curren, who continued onto the SGISD master’s program after focusing on East Asian Studies as a UMass Boston undergraduate student, spent her first year in the SGISD master’s program living in China and learning about socioeconomic and education inequalities in the nation’s countryside.
The pinnacle of her master’s work came in the form of a presentation she gave as a U.S. delegate to the Yenching Global Symposium at Peking University.
“I had to support why more inclusive communities are healthier, stronger, more progressive, and more democratic,” she said. “There are so many people living in poverty, so many ethnic and religious minorities there, that [exclusion is] kind of an unspoken thing, so I had to explain the outcomes if they’re better included.”
She plans to publish a paper on the socioeconomic exclusion of women in different parts of China. Curren also hopes to get involved with a nonprofit or ideally work for an international organization such as the United Nations Development Program.
Meanwhile, Leblois was working for a disability think tank in Washington, DC when he first met Dean Kiernan at a U.S. hearing on the ratification of the UN treaty on disability rights. It couldn’t have happened at a better time, he said, as he was starting to seek out new intellectual challenges.
Leblois was especially drawn to SGISD’s connections to the Institute for Community Inclusion, a thought leader in the disabilities field.
“I had hoped to not only learn about social inclusion as a general concept through different lenses, but also to enhance my understanding of how human development works, and to make it more inclusive for folks with disabilities,” he said.
Over Leblois’ academic career, he worked with the institute, the Disability Rights Fund, and held research assistantships that enabled him to build upon his background in disability rights, policy, and advocacy.
“My hope is that with this degree, I’ll be able to get into program monitoring and evaluation as an internal or third party person who looks at human or community development projects and explains how it’s doing,” he said.
Kiernan noted all students who choose to enroll at SGISD bring “great aspirations” with them when they arrive. The advanced degree they achieve provides knowledge and resources to resolve whatever exclusion they recognize and aim to eliminate around the world.
“The common thread that I would love to see all of our students demonstrate is to listen first and then to work collaboratively to make sure whatever they’re engaged with doesn’t eliminate some group,” Kiernan said.
“I look at the students coming in, our first graduates and also our doctoral students, and they’re a very impressive group,” he added. “They’re going to go out and do stuff that we haven’t even thought about. We’ll be learning from them, and that’s the way it should be.”