Students, International Studies

Student Profile – Aleks Besan, International Studies

March 13, 2014

For fourth-year student Aleks Besan, voluntary work in East Africa ignited her zeal to reform the way international development is perceived and carried out. Eventually, it led her to SFU’s School of International Studies.

A top student and keen community volunteer during high school, Besan came to SFU in 2010 as a Gordon M. Shrum Major Entrance Scholarship recipient. She planned to major in English, but explains, “I had many questions. In my first year I was trying many different things so my current English minor was a major as I really liked literature. I was thinking I could do psychology as well. But due to my keen interest in community work I realized I wanted to understand how groups worked instead of how individuals worked, in order to construct, govern and enable these groups.”

As an active participant in social development issues, Besan was enthusiastic when a former high school teacher asked her to volunteer for an international development trip to Rwanda and Uganda in the summer of 2011. However, it was during the two-week trip that Besan realized she was doing more harm than good. “The local communities had very little say in what was happening. Most of the decision making was being done by outsiders,” Besan explains. “It was then I realized that many times people who got involved in these international development projects were not always the right people to do that work.”

Besan had found a calling in social justice work, and felt that International Studies would provide the broad and interdisciplinary perspective she was seeking. She believes the School for International Studies has given her opportunities to listen to challenges to conventional wisdom about international development. “I feel my degree has given me the space to explore in many ways how international development can work, and the freedom to form my own opinion,” Besan says. “A lot of professors who teach in International Studies are from other Departments like history, sociology, political sciences and gender studies. Also, there is lot of flexibility to take courses outside of International Studies,” she says.

In addition, Besan explains that “the ability to challenge and criticize conventional opinions attracted me. Not that I like confrontation, but the freedom to debate and create a healthy dialogue has been the highlight of my journey at SFU.”  It has also provided Besan with opportunities for more work abroad; all students in International Studies are required to participate in either an exchange program or a field school. In 2013, Besan chose to travel to Guatemala as part of a student exchange program through the Uniterra program, in which Canadian university students are paired with university students from the host country to carry out development work.

Alesk Besan in Guatemala

Besan studied the impact of introducing formal volunteering in Guatemala. “Volunteering in Canada is very organized whereas in Guatemala it is a part of life. The Guatemalan government wanted to introduce formal volunteering and I was studying its social impact. I interviewed a lot of people and compiled a lot of data. It was very interesting to know their local perspective,” she says.

Besan realized she and her Canadian peers never thought of development work in Canada the way Guatemalan students did. “As a developed Western nation, we never look inwards. After talking and spending a summer with Guatemalan students, I understood better than ever before that Canada, too, has similar socio-economic problems which the mainstream commonly does not pay attention to.”

Complementing her interest in international development, Besan is also active locally. In 2011 she joined the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG) – a student-led and student-funded resource hub that provides students with avenues to be active around political and environmental issues by launching campaigns or connecting with other activist organizations.

At SFPIRG, Besan organized the round-table “Re-thinking Development”, and she helped support anti-oppression efforts, which eventually included a radical accessibility survey to examine issues of access including wheelchair accessibility, scent sensitivity, and sign language interpretation. “We conducted many training workshops so students could be more knowledgeable about how to host events and engage with communities and how to suit and serve as many people as possible and to understand their needs.”

After finishing her program in April this year, Besan plans to find work in the non-profit sector with a social advocacy group abroad. "During my time at the School of International Studies, I enjoyed hearing the reasons for disagreement between different students, professors, and theorists. I liked hearing about other people's opinions and knowing about the opinions that are typically silenced. My degree has taught me a lot about highlighting the voices that are not listened to. And that is what I aim to do in the future, with an anti-oppressive analysis that continues to deepen."