“The International Scholars Program (ISP) is what made me fall in love with research in the first place,” says Isabela Tasende, a senior majoring in political science and economics who’s just completed her senior thesis project on the role of the armed forces in upholding Venezuela’s civilian authoritarian regime.

“It’s been incredibly formative in my trajectory as a student, as a researcher, and as a generally curious person,” she says. “In terms of skills, ISP does a great job at teaching its scholars to own their work and take initiative.”

The Kellogg International Scholars Program trains undergraduates in research skills, funds travel for research projects, and provides one-to-one mentorship and hands-on research experience with a Kellogg faculty fellow. Students can apply for the program in April of their first year.

As part of ISP, Tasende worked as a research assistant for Associate Professor of Global Affairs Abby Córdova and traveled with her to Quito, Ecuador, when Córdova presented her findings on gender-based violence in developing countries at the UN Women Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Leaders Forum in November 2023.

“It was really incredible to see experts from all these different spheres come together. It taught me how presenting your research can help move it beyond the academic sphere and communicate it into policy recommendations and conversations with leaders from a variety of different backgrounds,” says Tasende, who, after she graduates, will work for several months at a not-for-profit striving to end violence against women back home in Panama.

After that, she will be a consultant at Bain & Company in Boston. She hopes to continue exploring the intersection of human development and democracy, possibly pursuing a master’s degree in that realm.

In her sophomore year, Tasende took a class on democracy and dictatorships with Eugene P. and Helen Conley Professor of Political Science Scott Mainwaring. That is where she started to develop her thesis research project topic.

“She had some very original theoretical contributions, and you don’t expect that from an undergraduate,” says Mainwaring, a Kellogg Faculty Fellow who worked with Tasende on her senior thesis. “The Venezuelan regime has presided over one of the steepest economic calamities in human history. How has this regime retained power despite, by any standard, catastrophic performance? The military. That’s not the only answer. But Isabela argues, and, I think, correctly, that it’s the most important answer.” Tasende interviewed a dozen people and conducted a detailed historical analysis of the Venezuelan regime’s civil-military relations over the past 25 years. By exploring the role that armed forces play in regime radicalization and resiliency, Tasende hopes to shine a light on what allows personalistic dictators to survive high-tension contexts. She proposes a framework that can be applied to a wider Latin American context, contributing findings for democratization efforts for similar regimes.

Tasende has a personal connection to Venezuela. Her father is Venezuelan and she lived there when she was very young before her family moved to Panama.

“I grew up around Venezuelan immigrants in Panama, people in the diaspora who had experienced having to leave their country behind,” she says. “I know that my family is just one of the millions who have had to leave Venezuela under worse conditions than we did, and that motivated my personal interest in seeing democracy come back to the country and trying to understand what the avenues and barriers to democratization are.”

Mainwaring, former Kellogg Institute director who is working on a book about why some democracies break down and why some endure in the face of bad social and economic performance, describes Tasende and another ISP scholar, Benjamín Rascón Gracia, a senior studying political science and global affairs, as “very motivated, dedicated, smart, and disciplined. Both are among the five best undergraduates I’ve taught in 41 years,” noting their GPAs are 4.0 and 3.99, respectively. Rascón Gracia worked as a research assistant for Mainwaring through ISP, and they also worked together on Rascón Gracia’s senior thesis, which investigates the behaviors of high-income and highly educated voters in Brazil.

"We've seen a potentially transformative shift in class voting cleavages in the Western world during the past few decades, and it has had profound impacts in American politics,” says Rascón Gracia. “Given Brazil's status as a leader in the Global South, I wanted to see if a similar rearrangement of class support for the left had changed in Brazil."

“He traces profound changes over time in how this demographic has voted for the left in presidential elections. He did excellent empirical work based on original data analysis of surveys from 2002 to 2022, and interesting theoretical work on what accounts for these changes over time,” says Mainwaring. “He delved into these issues more deeply than previous scholars had.  As a research assistant he also was very enterprising. For example, he contacted the heads of some museums of memory and some human rights organizations in Argentina.”

Rascón Gracia says that his three-year mentorship with Mainwaring has been enormously impactful.

“The opportunity to work directly with a faculty member has been one of the most beneficial things to me in my college career, as a scholar, and most likely it will be beneficial to me in my professional life as well,” says Rascón Gracia, who spent about eight months in Brazil between two trips funded by ISP and other grants. “The other really valuable thing is that ISP really provided an engaged community of fellow scholars.”

That community of scholars, research training and funding, and the opportunity to work with a Kellogg faculty fellow on serious academic research prepares undergraduates to produce their own independent research.

“Independent research is a different kind of learning process – a very deep learning process, instead of a broadening process,” says longtime ISP advisor Mainwaring. “Undergraduate education mostly correctly focuses on broadening, but the deepening component that students get through independent research is also really important – it can be a game changer for their lives, their careers, how they understand knowledge. Instead of becoming just consumers of knowledge, which of course is very important, they become producers of knowledge.”

Over the years, ISP has provided nearly 400 students with these unique and often international undergraduate research opportunities.

“The International Scholars Program is powerful,” says Kellogg Institute Associate Director Holly Rivers, who developed ISP and creates and manages other undergraduate research programs for the Institute. “ISP is a program that  both challenges and supports students. It helps them to develop research skills, shows them how research can impact people, and informs their futures, whether they go forward as academics or choose other careers.”