Arya Patel nabbed best thesis honors for her work exploring barriers to accessing COVID-19 state relief for female migrant workers in her hometown of Ahmedabad, India.
Arya Patel is a senior studying Public Policy with an interest in women’s issues and migration in international development and governance. She is passionate about community-based organizing, applying restorative justice frameworks in the field, and leveraging lived experiences to create positive change.
At Duke, she works with the Kenan Institute of Ethics as Restorative Justice Fellow, serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Borderless Duke’s first international relations magazine, and works as a research assistant for Professor Catherine Admay to deepen her understanding of development narratives and international human rights law.
After graduation, Arya will be working as Freedom in the World Junior Fellow at Freedom House on evidence-based civil and political analysis in pursuit of shifting power to marginalized communities and contributing to sustainable and localized change-making.
Arya's honors thesis is titled "The Triple Burden On Female Circular Migrants: Barriers To Access State Relief During Covid-19 In Ahmedabad, India", and her thesis advisor is Professor Anirudh Krishna.
Where are you from?
Although I spent my formative childhood years in Ahmedabad, India, I came of age in Charlotte, North Carolina. Having lived in two different continents, cultures, and communities shaped my transnational and perspective on public policy.
I fell in love with Duke when I visited during my high school for Duke’s annual Model UN conference. I was very impressed by the rigor of the conference, the way Duke students carried themselves, and how much I took away from the experience. During the conferences, I represented Pakistan in the UN Commission on the Status of Women committee. Advocating for women’s issues while also keeping in mind the cultural and religious norms of the country transformed my perspectives on feminism and human rights. The way the chairs of the committee explained concepts, facilitated conversations, and intellectually challenged us impressed me and made me want to be one of them. That is why I applied to Duke!
Why public policy?
Growing up in India and volunteering at NGOs there for many subsequent summers, I witnessed poverty, inequality, and structural issues that stuck with me for a long time. From seeing bullocks next to BMWs on the way to school as a child to volunteerings at an NGO which works with parents in rural villages to educate against child marriage, certain images never left my mind.
In high school I applied myself in my social science classes and extracurricular activities like Model UN and Speech and Debate which grew my knowledge, critical thinking skills, and desire to live a socially impactful life. I wanted to take my lived experiences and academic foundations to a university that would help me grow and funnel my new understandings towards building new ideas, contributing to cutting-edge projects, and learning about innovative policies, tools, and frameworks. Duke’s Public Policy program really struck me as one that would be able to fulfill my goals.
I was exposed to Public Policy first through Ethics, Leadership, and Global Citizenship FOCUS classes. These early discussion seminars and papers helped me make sense of the things I had seen in India while also opening my mind to histories, current events, and phenomena that I was never exposed to before. I was excited by how much there was to learn!
Finally, I felt like the Public Policy department was best equipped to prepare me not only intellectually but also to apply what I learned beyond Duke. Innovative faculty research impressed me because I could see how it directly benefited communities and informed policies. I loved that the Public Policy coursework was so directly linked to change-making and its very applied approach.
How did you approach honors thesis research?
My approach to research evolved continuously as I learned more about my topic, listened to narratives directly from my subjects, and gained an overarching academic perspective on gender studies. The first thing I learned about research is how important it is to be flexible to change and expect results that challenge original assumptions. These aspects were especially relevant since my topic was related to COVID-19 and its impact on the vulnerable circular migrant community, both of which were ongoing issues.
The second wave of COVID-19 caused me to push back my research and completely rethink my topic which was previously bound by the first wave and the authoritarian COVID-19 lockdown by the Indian government. As I changed my focus and conducted interviews on the ground, I realized how much academic literature cannot be captured in peer reviewed papers and how many narratives new media outlets missed. I was very grateful to have been able to do field work and hear first hand the public policy challenges faced by female circular migrants.
Even though I was based in my hometown in India, as I went to sites and talked to individuals I experienced a completely different version of the city. As I traveled via rickshaw between construction sites, informal housing, and campsites on the outskirts of town, my perception of my hometown expanded.
At first, I found it difficult to interview my subjects: female migrant workers. They were more likely to be shy, stay away from strangers without having their husbands nearby, and not share personal experiences. After trying many ways to gain their trust, I found that the best way to go about it was to hang around the informal day care sites in the construction sites. I tutored older children while waiting for women to come by during the break. By investing time in the day care, I was able to gain the trust of the women to show my intentions while also spending time with children who were eager to learn. I reflected a lot on how female migrant workers must experience the city with their migrant identity, gender, caste, and socio-economic background as intersectional, marginalized identities. I build my approach and interview questions based on my understanding of their identities and daily life.
My main takeaway was that it is very crucial to talk to the people who are directly affected by policies, because no matter how much quantitative and overarching news that is collected, sometimes simple personal narratives bring more clarity to a policy issue. My research convinced me that social science research does not need to lack emotions and humanity and that conducting research in the field means that you actually have to prioritize those two elements above the sanitized, scientific narrative that the social science field likes to portray.
After graduation, I hope to be able to gain a few years of experience in the public sector or with civil society organizations. I would like to apply my skills and knowledge in the professional setting, while improving my writing, research, analysis and management skills. For the next nine months I will be working as a Freedom in the World Junior Fellow with Freedom House in Washington D.C. I hope to pursue graduate school after gaining more perspective and insight on international development and governance by working with people from many different cultures, worldviews, and goals.
Describe Sanford to potential students
I would describe Sanford as a place in which one can mold to develop and grow interests in whatever ways they want. Stanford’s resources, support, and network can be leveraged to learn and apply just about anything related to policy!
Why does public policy matter to you?
Public Policy matters to me because it is a framework and tool which looks at issues as a part of a system of positive elements like systems of leadership and mobility, community culture (such as the African idea of Ubuntu), as well as negative elements like structural racism, exclusionary systems, and inequality, combined to analyze, improve, and advocate for change in the system.
About Our Graduates
Students graduate Friday May 6 from the Sanford School with undergraduate, Master of Public Policy, Master of International Development Policy, international Master of Environmental Policy and PhD degrees.