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ARTICLES

Generation Innovation: Rebecca Peters, 4th Generation Cal Student, 2013 Truman Scholar

Rebecca Peters, 2013 Truman Scholar
Rebecca Peters, a Blum Center student and the fourth woman in her family to attend UC Berkeley, was named a 2013 Harry S. Truman Scholar last week. Sixty-two college juniors received the prestigious award on the basis of their academic achievements, leadership accomplishments, and their commitment to becoming a leader in public service. The Scholarship provides leadership training, post-graduate opportunities in Washington, DC, and $30,000 for graduate study. Peters reflects on her winding journey to the Truman Scholarship and her future beyond the Blum Center and UC Berkeley.

April 17, 2013 – My path to the Truman Scholarship began to take shape generations ago, when my great grandmother frequented UC Berkeley’s hallowed grounds while pursuing degrees in Spanish and history. My grandmother, currently 96 years old and still reflecting fondly on her time at Cal, similarly began her studies here only to leave to take a job at Lawrence Berkeley Lab as an engineering designer. My mom also began to pursue a degree here before decamping to take a job in the city. I was born in San Francisco and grew up hearing about UC Berkeley, but it always seemed like a distant institution that belonged to my ancestors. As a graduating high school senior I was certain that I wanted to study environmental science and engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to begin a career in Californian river restoration work.

However, my path radically shifted when I enrolled in an Appropriate Technology course that included fieldwork in rural Guatemala. Bearing witness to abject destitution profoundly refocused my perspective, and I began to understand the problem of poverty for the billions of people living without safe water, education, and health care. Learning how to negotiate the complex divides between poverty and wealth helped me develop my own solidarity in the context of inequality, and this experience learning to bridge cultural difference and seek transnational similarities inspired me to apply to transfer to UC Berkeley to enroll in the Global Poverty and Practice Minor.

Once at Berkeley, I declared majors in Society and Environment (B.Sc.) and International Development and Economics (B.A.) through the interdisciplinary field studies program. For my GPP practice experience, I sought to unite these fields by working on rural water projects with the Foundation for Sustainable Development and Water for People in Cochabamba, Bolivia from May to August 2012. Many of my days consisted of visiting communities without connections to the municipal water supply and discussing the role of water cooperatives in improving access. Through this work, I found a significant component missing from the work of the organizations: addressing the asymmetrical impacts of a lack of water on women and girls. I am now leading the expansion of gender sensitive water programs in twelve rural schools in Bolivia this summer, and am a finalist for the Human Rights category of the BigIdeas@Berkeley competition to support these efforts.

Rebecca Peters in Chiapas, Mexico
Peters examines the bottling mechanisms for community distribution from a safe water kiosk in Chiapas, Mexico, in March 2013. Three fellow GPP students will complete their practice experience at the site in Summer 2013.

While at Cal, I have participated in two Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP) projects with Blum Center associated faculty and am currently working with Professor Isha Ray to generate a literature review on the current state of water treatment models in Latin America. My first honors thesis, a formative component of my research engagement at Cal, analyzed the formation of current conditions of water access, control, and management in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The municipal government in Cochabamba theoretically incorporated civic participation as an element of their planning system through the conduits of varying levels of administration. However, a 2004 report by the United Nations RISD found clear evidence that elements of class-based discrimination and resulting inequalities in access to water existed in the residential peri-urban spaces of Cochabamba, with such inter-urban spaces becoming places where the population is an indicator of processes of social differentiation (UNRISD 2004). The insurgent urbanization of Cochabamba resulted in the rise of numerous squatter settlements, zones of informal housing, and distinctively “peri-urban” regions on the outskirts of the city. Asymmetrical political power distribution is most obviously manifested in the noticeable absence of municipal services that are provided to the wealthier districts of the city, including water and sanitation. In this way, I came to understand water as not just an environmental, economic, social, or cultural resource, but also the site of considerable politicized inequity. These diverse research experiences that often cross into advocacy have collectively reinforced my belief in the importance of working across disciplines to achieve the goals of reducing poverty, improving global health, and increasing equality in water and environmental resource distribution.

Over the past two years, I revitalized the Water IdeaLab, co-founded a DeCal on water and international human rights, and collaborated with faculty to create an undergraduate curriculum to improve water related student opportunities. I also lead the Nuestra Agua student group, and alongside fellow students introduced a social justice and human rights perspective to the organization which was previously narrowly focused on the role of UV technology and health outcomes for reducing water borne illness in rural Mexican communities. The program in Chiapas will be the summer practice experience for three GPP students to contribute to safe water programs.

While I am thrilled that my efforts thus far have helped engage students in water issues on campus, in the community, and around the world, there are still miles to go. The Truman and Udall scholarships, along with the Berkeley Law Human Rights Fellowship, are honors that I take very seriously as long-term investments to foster my commitment to water, social justice, and human rights work. My roots at Berkeley, beginning with my great grandmother, instilled in me a deep sense of history and appreciation for the educational experience here. I am still awed by the sheer physical beauty of the architecture, inspired by the intellect of my peers, and humbled by the opportunities I have as a student at Cal.

After graduating from Cal and working in Washington, DC with the State Department through the Truman Scholars Institute, I intend to pursue dual masters degrees in Water Science, Policy, and Management (M.Sc.) and International Development (M.A.) which will enable me to contribute to the design of meaningful policies that will shape the future role of the United States in water and the environment. In the future, I hope to work with the State Department’s new US Water Partnership to define its direction as a leader in US foreign policy related to issues of environmental sustainability and water security. My vision is to address inequitable water consumption practice while targeting the improvement of strong civil societies able to hold their government representatives accountable to the social, economic, and cultural demands of water. Through designing policies that empower governments to fulfill their obligation to provide affordable and accessible safe water to their people, I hope to make access to and control of water resources a more inclusive, transparent, and equitable process.

Some advice I would offer students looking for ways to get involved in poverty action are to utilize campus resources like the Blum Center, the Scholarship Connection, the Center for Effective Global Action, and Cal Corps. The mentorship and support I have received from the faculty and staff at the Blum Center have been critical to my activism, research, and advocacy for poverty and water issues. The lasting friends I have made through the Global Poverty and Practice minor – the other peer advisors, my classmates, and my Bolivian partners – inspire me every day with their creative brilliance, thoughtful innovations, and deep compassion. The Blum Center has effectively created a space to allow for a new vein of student driven and institution supported work that facilitates the millennial generation’s mission to theoretically and practically engage with the challenges of global poverty and inequality. Effective poverty action requires informed actors, and the millennials at Berkeley are capable of critically engaging to end the inequality that drives pressing economic, environmental, and social problems. Go Bears.

Visit Peters’ blog for more about her research and travels.

Read more about Peters in ‘Fourth-generation Berkeley student lands prize for water work’ via UC Berkeley NewsCenter.

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