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Untangling the knots of a complex world

ASU alumna’s passion to address real-world refugee issues driven by her own experience coming to US from Bulgaria

Sarah Lords speaking in Charles Ripley's ASU career development course

Sarah Lords speaks with ASU Professor Charles Ripley’s career development class.

June 08, 2018

Arizona State University alumna Sarah Lords’ path to choosing global studies as a degree can be traced back to her parents.

The communist regime in Sofia, Bulgaria, fell in 1989 but according to Lords, the complex transfer of political power still allowed for the persecution of religious minorities that were not sanctioned by the government. Her parents were among those caught in the plight.

Lords’ father was approached by a small college with the opportunity to flee to the United States through a student visa. Although Lords said it was a difficult decision, he took the opportunity, moving to upstate New York with his young family.

After arriving in the U.S. with only two suitcases, the family found support in a network of faith-based organizations who suggested they relocate to California for better aid.

When they arrived in California, the Lords’ student visas had expired and the support network withdrew while the family struggled to find work. Lords explains how her father would get $20 for a day’s work which barely covered the cost of the taxi commute.

Seeking better employment opportunities, the Lords family set out to move to Arizona. On the drive there, however, they were stopped by border patrol and an order for their deportation was issued. This interaction, however, offered a small thread of hope: in the few comments exchanged during the documentation, a border patrol agent heard the family’s story and suggested that they might have grounds for asylum.

Soon, in a courthouse in downtown Phoenix, the Lords family was granted asylum and became permanent residents.

“One of the scariest moments for me and my parents ended up being really helpful because through that process we were able to get legal status,” Lords said. “It is a string of happy, hard coincidences.”

Winning a scholarship for first-generation college students, Lords was able to fund her education at ASU, where she chose to major in global studies. Drawing from her own migratory journey, she developed an interest in refugees and making an impact globally. The program seemed like a natural fit.

Lords described how the classes she took as a global studies major gave her a sense of urgency. She and her classmates would sit together at lunch and discuss large issues like terrorism and immigration.

“When you are a part of a degree program which pushes you to constantly and critically assess what is happening in the headlines — unpacking the factors behind each occurrence — you really feel the weight of what you are studying,” Lords said. “It all feels both relevant and heavy and you have to go out and do something about it.”

Upon graduation in 2014, that is exactly what Lords did. She worked full time as the volunteer and outreach coordinator doing community engagement for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Phoenix.

“Working at the IRC was invaluable,” Lords said. “It was amazing to have the opportunity and privilege to advocate on behalf of newly arrived refugees through education and engagement, especially at a time when the issue was shrouded in so many misconceptions.”

However, Lords wanted her impact to be broader.

“I wanted to engage with the issues involved in resettlement on a higher level,” she said.

Lords decided to circle back to ASU. This is when she came across the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

“I remember being initially taken by their ability to draw together all of these interdisciplinary lenses and sort of layer them over a problem in order to gain a deeper, truer understanding of what is going on,” said Lords in describing the center.

In late 2016 she began working as communication, outreach and events coordinator for the center while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, which would focus on migrant populations.

Lords shared her enthusiasm at the mission of the center: It magnifies the necessity for interdisciplinary studies when addressing real-word issues.

“The center invites researchers to come together and think through topics in a way that is multifaceted and by that, contributes more holistic understandings. The world is so complex and I think it takes that wide scope of analysis to make sense of the urgent issues unfolding in our world today. It’s really neat to be a part of it all,” said Lords.

The initial development of this concept is something that began while she was pursuing her global studies degree. Lords recalled the impact of a class with School of Politics and Global Studies Professor Reed Wood, which focused on terrorism and the process of radicalization.

“That class was so uniquely profound for me because it was the first time that I considered the complexity of the ‘bad guys,’” Lords said. “You begin to realize that people are rational actors and they are doing what they, in that moment, think is best. That makes issues not so black-and-white. At that realization, you not only shed your preconceived notions, but are prompted to deeply consider what the contributing factors were. That, in essence, is what makes you a better thinker.”

According to Lords, that class helped shape her worldview, serving as a theme that she has carried with her so far in her life.

“I carry a sincere appreciation for education as it addresses complexity. When you are able to look at the world from a more holistic perspective and understand how different actors overlap and intersect, you see that the world is deeply intertwined — there are all of these threads tie people together. I suppose my ambition is to untangle some of the knots.”

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