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ASU School of Politics and Global Studies Dean’s Medalist passionate about research

Isabelle Kinney stands in front of a bush laden with magenta flowers

Isabelle Kinney will participate in the Critical Languages Institute’s second-year Uzbek program in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, over the summer after graduation and then start a master’s degree in Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies at the University of Michigan. Photo by Meghan Finnerty

April 19, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Amassing well over 200 credit hours in four years, completing a Barrett, The Honors College thesis, and graduating summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA, three degrees, a minor and three certificates is a spectacular accomplishment for any student. But what distinguishes Isabelle Kinney’s undergraduate career at Arizona State University is her range of experiences, particularly in original research.

“Isabelle was a sophomore student when she started working with me on her first research project,” said Yasmin Saikia, Hardt-Nickachos chair in peace studies. Reflecting on their collaboration, Saikia said Kinney “was excited and enthusiastic, but also scared and uncertain about how to move forward initially. However, in the course of the semester, she learned excellent research skills and proved her mettle. Since then, I have depended on her. … Her maturity, confidence and timely delivery of work are some things I treasure.”

Margaret Hanson, assistant professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, guided Kinney’s political science research and lauds her as “a bright, exceptionally hard-working and talented student who has overcome significant challenges to complete her studies.”

To gain hands-on research experience, Kinney capitalized on fellowship opportunities through that school, the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict (CSRC), the Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, and the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. She conducted multiple independent research projects, served as a research assistant for three faculty members, and participated in intensive critical languages training – all while working to financially ensure her own education.

In recognition of her many accomplishments, Kinney was named The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences spring 2023 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Politics and Global Studies.

Ironically, becoming a researcher was not Kinney’s original goal.

“I was planning on going to law school, and a language combined with political science seemed like the best foundation for an international law focus,” she explained.

But, as her aptitude for research increased, Kinney’s focus shifted from the practice of law to academic inquiry.

“I started adding certificates like the Russia and East European studies and international studies certificates. As I kept working with the Melikian Center and the CSRC, I added the things that made sense to me. When I got hired as a research aide at the CSRC, I added the religious studies degree with a focus on religion, politics and global affairs. … I needed to know what I was doing and have a frame of reference.”

Her transdisciplinary studies have given Kinney a unique approach to research, and Hanson described her as “a promising future scholar of Central Asian politics.” Kinney’s honors thesis – "Indigeneity, Cultural Genocide and Advocacy: Political Identity in the Uyghur Diaspora" – incorporates her interests in politics, religion, and international law. The project seeks to understand whether or not it is possible to learn about the opinions of the Uyghur people remaining in the Xinjiang region of China through diasporic communities in other Turkic countries, or if a cultural gap has developed between the two groups. Kinney was competitively selected to give a presentation about the project at the Eldersveld Emerging Scholars Conference at the University of Michigan.

She gratefully acknowledges that this opportunity, and others like it, were made possible by financial aid she received as an ASU student, including the Kenneth C. Behringer Undergraduate Research Scholarship, the Steve and Margaret Forster Memorial Scholarship in Religious Studies, and three awards from the Critical Languages Institute to fund intensive summer language study of first-year Russian and first- and second-year Uzbek.

Thanks to this financial support, the academic support of ASU faculty and her own determination, Kinney is graduating with concurrent degrees in political science, religion, politics and global affairs and French, a minor in Russian, certificates in international studies, religion, conflict and peace, and Russia and East European studies, and she has been accepted into three national honor societies, including the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa.

“Her intellectual curiosity is matched by an impressive ability to present complex and nuanced information to non-specialist audiences. I am excited to see where her formidable talents take her," said Irina Levin, assistant teaching professor and honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College.

Kinney shares more about her experiences at ASU below.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: One thing I learned at ASU that surprised me was how kind and empathetic the professors can be. When I got into research I was expecting a lot of hard deadlines and admonishment if I did something wrong. That has been very far from my experience. I have made plenty of mistakes, but the professors I have worked for have been very kind and understanding. This was also true of the internships I have had as a student.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Honestly, the main reason I chose ASU was the scholarship and support that I was getting at ASU. I had applied to other places, but a lot of time college is what you’re able to put into it, so I based my decision on the financial aid. I stayed because I got to do everything I wanted to do: I got to do research much earlier than I likely would have somewhere else; I was less worried about debt than I would have been somewhere else; and I probably would not have been able to add all these academic credentials elsewhere.

Q: Which instructor taught you the most valuable lesson while at ASU?

A: I think the most valuable life lesson I was taught by an instructor was Patricia Murphy from Superstition Review. She told me that sometimes the achievements we think are going to make our lives so much better do not always deliver on what we thought they would. At the time I was working a lot, even by the standards I have now, and it’s a lesson I have had to learn over and over again.

Q: What was the most interesting or valuable experience you had as a university student beyond the classroom?

A: The most interesting experience I had as a student outside the classroom was a crisis simulation I attended at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in the fall 2019. I’m a pretty academic person and do not get super far outside of academic spaces. I worked with a bunch of students in the law school and at different stages in undergrad to solve a simulated crisis in Sri Lanka involving religious conflict, natural disasters and even a coup. The mentors for the group were former diplomats and lawyers who taught at the law school. I put a bunch of M&Ms on the map we were given so we knew what crisis was going on and where. Another student and I wrote the whole presentation we gave on our solution in French (we were representing France and the EU). It was a really fun experience and I got to meet a lot of interesting people. Especially since it was my first semester, it showed me a lot of the different things I could do at ASU beyond taking classes.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to students?

A: The best advice I could give someone still in school is to know what their limits are and to listen to them. Burnout, getting sick, obstacles in life, etc., are things that need to be taken seriously. As proud as I am of my accomplishments, there was a price in the form of burnout and I would want anyone who wants to emulate that to seriously consider the price.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus when I started at ASU was the computer lab in G. Homer Durham Hall, before the renovations. There was a really comfortable couch there where I did a lot of homework. Now my favorite spot on campus is the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict student office in the West Hall. It’s easy to study there, I have a nice view of the library, and an escape from the heat when that rolls in.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My current plan after graduation is to participate in the Critical Languages Institute’s second-year Uzbek program in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, over the summer and then start a master’s degree in Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies at the University of Michigan. I’ll be working over the summer as well.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would probably try to tackle some of the problems that public libraries face with underfunding or a lack of resources. I owe a lot to being close to a good library when I was younger, and I would want others to have the same types of opportunities (or better) I got from developing a love of reading and having access to so much information about the world. $40 million definitely is not enough to solve that problem in the U.S. or the world, but with the right organizations and coordination it could make some progress.

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