Ashbrook Scholar's Study Abroad Provides Strong Foundation for Thesis and Post-Graduate Internship
December 24, 2020
Ashbrook Scholar graduate Brooke Branson used her undergraduate studies to follow her curiosity about the world while testing her own potential. Majoring in International Political Studies and minoring in economics was ambitious. Choosing to attend AU as an Ashbrook Scholar meant that her study of global politics would be grounded in her reading of classic texts in western and American political philosophy. She wanted a program that “would challenge me and help me grow as a person,” and her interview with then program director Peter Schramm convinced her that “the Ashbrook program was going to do these things and more.”
Faculty describe Branson as the ideal Ashbrook Scholar, one who pushed both herself and others. “Sometimes a very bright student will pose questions so arcane that other students are left out. Brooke’s questions were always to the point, but expressed in a manner that engaged other students,” said Professor Rene Paddags, Branson’s senior thesis advisor.
Branson’s interests lead her to investigate how human communities order their politics. Last spring she traveled to China, enrolling in a beginning course in Mandarin. “I thought the best way to learn about China was to go there and try to learn a bit of the language while immersing myself in Chinese life,” Branson explained. Studying at Sichuan University for Nationalities—in the western region, where tourists seldom visit—she found herself frequently stopped by natives who wanted to snap a photo with an exotic-looking foreigner.
They also wanted information Branson could give them. “I had thought that the Chinese people understood how their own government worked in comparison to other governments and were complicit with it. But I found them to be very interested in learning how things work elsewhere. They don’t have much access to information, yet they want to stay up-to-date,” Branson said. “The older generation would try to speak with me despite my broken Chinese. Many college-age Chinese spoke English, so I could more easily talk with them.”
Life in contemporary China is hard. “They are up in the very early morning, moving and trying to get things done. Traffic is a heavy by 4 am.” There is little nightlife, although working Chinese eat inexpensive meals out before going home to be with their families. With a culture focused on work and home, the Chinese are surprised to learn that
Americans organize in political parties and interest groups. “One of my advisors in the program in Sichuan did her Masters in San Francisco. Even after spending that time in the US, she is still trying to wrap her mind around the openness of American government. When we asked her about a rare protest outside a Chinese bank—against high interest rates—she told us to stay away, warning, ‘You’re not allowed to protest here!’”
After returning from China, Branson focused her efforts on fulfilling the Ashbrook Scholar program requirement of writing and defending a senior thesis on a topic that intrigued her. Her thesis probed the political culture in another region of the world: Iran. To assess its prospects for democratic development, Branson studied five revolutionary groups involved in the coalition that overthrew the Shah in 1979. Only the group led by Khomeini advocated religious authoritarianism, yet this group grasped control. “Most revolutionary groups prior to 1979 wanted a version of democratic government,” although preferring one that protected Islamic social mores, Branson argued.
Iran now lives under parallel systems of rule. An elected legislature provides nominal democracy, but important decisions are made by the supreme religious leader, now the Ayatollah Khamenei. This suggests high risk in the recent nuclear accord with Iran, Branson says. “It could improve prospects for democracy if it gives Iranians a greater taste of western culture. But the deal, negotiated with elected president Hassan Rouhani, assumes that the unelected government will abide by the terms. Khamenei has already announced worrying restrictions on it.”
Having graduated in December, Branson recently began an internship at the Heritage Foundation in January, researching Middle Eastern foreign policy. “The critical thinking skills I honed as an Ashbrook Scholar” have prepared her for this. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t be afraid to tackle hard problems,” Branson said. In fact, “finding out that you’re wrong often leads to better understanding.”