Isa Sheikh and Susan Ostermann walking outside

With democracy in crisis in many parts of the world, the mission of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies to promote global research on democracy has become even more crucial. One way the Institute works to fulfill its mission is providing undergraduate research assistants to faculty to support their research on democracy.

Two programs in particular, the International Scholars Program (ISP) and the Kellogg Developing Researchers (KDR) program, provide students with research training and opportunities to work one-to-one with faculty on their research projects.

“Students in ISP and KDR are engaging in academic research alongside faculty, addressing important questions around democracy as early as their sophomore year,” says Kellogg Associate Director Holly Rivers, who developed and manages both. “These critical Kellogg programs match Kellogg faculty researchers with motivated students who go above and beyond – some are even co-authoring papers.” 

Sophomore Isa Sheikh, who is studying history and political science, has been working closely with Susan Ostermann, assistant professor of global affairs and Kellogg faculty fellow, for about a year through ISP. They will present their research on the democratic extension in Pakistan at the Annual Meeting of the Law and Society Association in Puerto Rico in June. Their research, which they intend to publish later, focuses on the 2018 peaceful merging of FATA, what had been a semi-autonomous region since British rule of the subcontinent, into the neighboring province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“It's a remarkably pivotal place,” says Ostermann, who spent much of last year gathering data in Pakistan for her book project and this paper. “One of the reasons we’re trying to tell this story is because it hasn’t been told, not by historians and not by political scientists. The people who are working on Pakistan are interested in violence, and so something that is non-violent isn’t all that interesting to them. We’re interested in the extension of democracy into FATA and the voluntary nature of it.”

Sheikh and Ostermann also applied for and received a Liu Institute Justice in Asia Grant that allowed Sheikh to engage in archival research for this project at the British Library in London during spring break. Because there is very little scholarly work on the persistence of frontier governance in  FATA and this merger, Sheikh’s work of compiling and substantiating a historical record is particularly significant alongside Ostermann’s qualitative data and will be a resource for other scholars interested in democracy, this specific region, and other legally-exceptional regions around the world.

“Isa is fantastic. He started working on the literature review of this paper, and pretty quickly was adding enough of his own ideas to the table that I said, ‘Why not just be a co-author?’” says Ostermann. 

“I have a strong preference for working with others, because I think that the interplay of ideas from discussion really helps strengthen papers,” she adds. “Isa has a background in history and political science, and I am political science and law. With poli-sci in the middle, we have something to talk about, but we’re also bringing different insights and skillsets to the table, and that’s good.”

This collaboration has proven to be impactful and rewarding for both Ostermann and Sheikh. 

“We are opening the door to academic research in an area that has very little. It’s super exciting to be part of a process like this, having never done research before, and to be able to zoom out to these larger questions around democracy, what the state’s capacity looks like, and what reform really looks like … how change can actually happen with relatively little coercion and violence,” says Sheikh. 

“I’m being really challenged to think through things more critically and be able to utilize my voice in a more serious way,” he says. “The involvement in ISP and the research with professor Ostermann is also partially career discernment: Do I want to go into a research field? Do I want to be a professor?”

Both ISP and KDR provide students with an opportunity to grow their skills through training and hands-on research experience. Serious collaborations like this with faculty help students determine whether they want to pursue further education and a career in research after they graduate.

“It’s a great opportunity for our students to see if they actually like this stuff. A lot of people go through undergrad and maybe like a subject in theory, in a sort of consumer type way, but producing research is an entirely different endeavor and it has sort of glamorous aspects and completely not glamorous aspects of it,” says Ostermann. “One of the great things about this program is that it gives undergraduates an opportunity in advance — like an internship sort of — to really try it out in a deep way and say, ‘Do I like this?’”

Senior Amanda Abner, who is studying science-business and Japanese, is in her second KDR semester working as research assistant for Kellogg Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of Political Science Luis Schiumerini on his book project on incumbency bias in Latin America.

“Incumbency bias is a really critical question of electoral accountability and also about democracy in Latin America,” says Schiumerini. “Scholars have long wondered why just having an office holder in an election makes for such a strong electoral advantage, because they think that perhaps it indicates that democracy is unfair. My book shows that even if accountability works well, incumbency bias emerges, and it’s not bad for democracy, it just indicates that voters react very strongly to performance … without that harming democracy.”

Abner says that her training and research experience through KDR have influenced her to look at careers that have an international focus, and Schiumerini advised her as she applied for graduate programs.

“It’s definitely been impactful. After being a part of the Kellogg program, working around a lot of diverse people and topics, it became very evident that that’s what I’m really interested in,” says Abner. “I just got accepted into my first grad program too! It’s a masters of international affairs, but I’m waiting to hear back from other schools.”

The skills Abner gained through KDR research workshops on Stata data science software and R programming language, plus her proficiency in Spanish, made her a good match for Schiumerini’s project. She’s been gathering each country’s election data in Spanish, analyzing it, and translating it into English. 

“Amanda always goes above and beyond, bringing more context, more substance, and contextual understanding. Her interest in the topic, linguistic understanding, and qualitative search for data really brings an added value,” says Schiumerini. 

“Kellogg undergrads stand out,” he adds. “It’s a signal of quality. Students at Kellogg have these qualitative attributes: interest in the topics, languages, and, more often than not, they are hoping to continue their professional career in international development, politics, things like that. So, you end up working with students who are much more aligned in terms of your research interests. And being able to involve students in social science and see how they find value and something that enriches them really brings joy and tells you that what you’re doing matters.”

The Kellogg Institute for International Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, is an interdisciplinary community of scholars and students from across the University and around the globe that promotes research, provides educational opportunities, and builds partnerships throughout the world on the themes of global democracy and integral human development.