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Melikian Center undergraduate expands her horizons in work with Kazakh Fulbright scholar

Sofia Walsh

Sofia Walsh

June 07, 2021

Sofia Walsh, a student at Barrett, The Honors College, recalls that she had no idea what she was getting into when she applied to be an undergraduate fellow at Arizona State University's Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.

The program is designed to give undergraduates the opportunity to work closely with faculty affiliated with the center. Walsh was broadly interested in Russia and its impact on its neighboring countries, but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to delve into research.

That changed when she was matched with Beibit Shangirbayeva, who is spending 2021 at the Melikian Center on a Fulbright fellowship. She is an associate professor in the International Law Department of L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian University in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. She came to ASU to continue her research on the development of human rights law in Kazakhstan, and the interplay of influences from the Russian and Soviet eras, from international and “Western” norms, and from legal traditions rooted in the country’s nomadic culture.

Through the course of the semester, Walsh had the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in research methods and to understand how her own research interests connect with broader questions and different academic fields. The fellowship has allowed her to prepare for her long-term goal of attending graduate school.  

“This opened my eyes to certain topics that I wouldn’t have thought to explore or be interested in — the topic of policy diffusion and authoritarian policy transfer,” Walsh said. “This fellowship broadened my interests, made me aware of this whole field that I didn’t even know existed and now I’m interested in, and I might pursue it for my own thesis.”

For Shangirbayeva, participating as a mentor in the Melikian Center Undergraduate Fellowship has been a rewarding experience as well. It was her first experience of working with a research assistant in her academic career.  

“Despite being only a sophomore student, Sofia was very helpful in finding relevant literature and other necessary information to advance my interdisciplinary research that combined knowledge not only of several fields, but several languages as well,” she said.

Shangirbayeva noted in particular Walsh's help in bibliographic research, in the course of which she tracked down key works in international law that dealt with human rights law and its impact on nomadic peoples, including works by Jérémie Gilbert and Marco Moretti. These works opened up comparative dimensions to Shangirbayeva’s project.

“Sofia was very diligent in all assigned tasks and very active in participating in numerous and diverse events of the Melikian Center,” Shangirbayeva said. “I enjoyed her assistance and cooperation."

Shangirbayeva is planning to submit a paper for publication in fall 2021, focusing on the continued relevance of Kazakh customary law and especially the relation between the idea of the “freedom of a fair word” and contemporary legal norms on freedom of expression.

Beibit Shangirbayeva

Beibit Shangirbayeva on the ASU Tempe campus.

In addition to assisting Shangirbayeva, Walsh also interned with the London-based NGO Index on Censorship this past semester. The nongovernmental organization highlights the voices of people facing censorship around the world. One of Walsh’s assignments was to write policy papers on policy transfer, a topic she felt that her Melikian Fellowship prepared her for. 

Walsh had the following advice for fellow students regarding working with the Melikian Center and its faculty: “Just apply even if you’re a little bit interested, and keep an open mind about the type of work that you do. Even if it’s not exactly related to your personal interest or your major, you will always develop transferable skills, and you could very well be exposed to something that you had no idea existed. Your fellowship could spark a new interest, a new desire to explore something.”

Written by Kristen Ho

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