Student Spotlight Alaina Bur

Alaina’s hometown is Clarkston, Michigan. She got her undergraduate degree in sociology from Oakland University. During her undergraduate studies, she spent a summer doing an internship in a semi-arid, rural region of western Kenya that provided her with the opportunity to collect data on water insecurity and subjective well-being among women who gain and lose access to boreholes.

Alaina then discovered that she wanted to do work in the field of international development in Africa since her teens and the opportunity helped her to realize the importance of research that evaluates the efficacy of development programs abroad. She then decided to get her PhD to gain an expertise in evaluating the social and environmental impacts of development programs in Africa. She is particularly interested in water insecurity and forest conservation programs and their effects on local populations. 

She decided to come to MSU because of the department's strength in environmental sociology, the university's large number of Africanists and its encouragement of interdisciplinary work, and the availability of language courses in Swahili. This year she will be a second-year sociology student with an area focus in environment. She is also getting a specialization in Environmental Science and Policy and taking courses in Kiswahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. She hopes to finish the program in five years, which will be in 2021. The program is very hard work, but she has been continually surprised by what she is capable of when challenged.

This summer she has a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) grant from the US Department of Education to study Swahili. The grant pays for her tuition and provides a stipend for room and board. She is living in Arusha, Tanzania for June and July and studying in Yale's summer Swahili program. She studied Swahili for one year at the beginner's level at MSU this past year. Now she is one of twelve students studying intermediate Swahili intensively with the Yale program here in Tanzania. “We are in class all morning and study independently in the afternoons. We have spent about half of our time here living in a host home and half of our time living in the dorms at our school,” said Alania. Apart from talking to peers outside of class, she only speak Swahili here. She spent the last week going on a class trip to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. She has made some really great friendships with students from all over the US and from other countries who are all here studying abroad. 
She said she will continue studying Swahili at the advanced level for the next two years until she is ready to do her dissertation fieldwork. She plans to do her dissertation fieldwork in the same region of western Kenya where she did her first internship and has been returning to for follow-up research. She will conduct research there for between 6 to 12 months, so speaking Swahili will allow her to become more integrated in the community and to conduct surveys in Swahili. 

Studying Swahili has been incredibly rewarding. One year ago she was living in Kenya for a second summer to continue researching water and she could only greet people in Swahili. Because she was living in a more remote area many people could not speak English. She couldn't speak to her housekeeper, her drivers who would take her on trips to the field to conduct interviews, women and men who she interviewed in the villages, all of her friends' children, people in the markets and stores, and so many others. Next week, before she heads back to the US, she is going to Kenya to visit her friends for a few days and she will be able to speak to everyone without the help of a translator.